• September 22, 2014

They're Back, and They're Bad: Campus-Gossip Web Sites

They're Back, and They're Bad: Campus Gossip Web Sites 1

"What's the dirt?" asks a query on the Campus Gossip Web site, one of several new sites publishing nasty comments about students. The site's owners are not legally required to remove malicious material at a student's request, a spokesman said.

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close They're Back, and They're Bad: Campus Gossip Web Sites 1

"What's the dirt?" asks a query on the Campus Gossip Web site, one of several new sites publishing nasty comments about students. The site's owners are not legally required to remove malicious material at a student's request, a spokesman said.

Students have more ways than ever to post anonymous attacks on classmates, thanks (or rather, no thanks) to new and expanded online forums promising to be bigger and juicier than the infamous JuicyCampus, which drew fierce protests from harassed students before it shut down earlier this year.

"This is the new JuicyCampus," says a note at Campus Gossip, which boasts campus-specific message boards for hundreds of colleges and encourages anonymous and racy barbs such as "These Fellas got herpes," with a list of names attached. Going even further than its predecessor, there's also a photo section where students can post embarrassing pictures and videos of others.

The site is planning a back-to-school marketing push, including a happy hour near Arizona State University where a rap artist named Sabotage will perform a song about the pleasures of campus gossip.

Another site, CollegeACB (the letters stand for Anonymous Confession Board), paid the defunct JuicyCampus $10,000 to redirect visitors from its Web address to CollegeACB.

These spawn of JuicyCampus are likely to give college administrators grief this academic year, and some legal experts say current laws will not help them fight back.

High-school students have also gotten into the act. A forum called Peoples Dirt hosts discussion boards aimed at students, organized by state. This year Maryland's attorney general opened an investigation into the site, describing it in a written statement as "home almost exclusively to abusive, harmful, and embarrassing personal attacks on high-school-aged children." Peoples Dirt recently added a few college-focused sections, including a message board aimed at students at the University of Maryland at College Park.

For those who missed the drama over JuicyCampus, that site encouraged students to talk trash about their peers in an anonymous forum. A few students sued; several student governments passed resolutions condemning the site; at least two colleges blocked campus access to it; and the attorneys general in two states opened investigations into its business practices. None of the those actions seemed to have much impact, however, and the site's operator, Matt Ivester, remained defiant. Money does have an impact, though, and the site shut down in February citing a lack of advertising revenue.

But it doesn't take much cash to operate such a service, and operators of newer sites vow to continue no matter what.

Some legal scholars argue that the only effective way to keep such toxic forums from emerging is to amend federal communication laws—though doing so would raise tricky free-speech issues.

In the meantime, some college administrators see controversies over gossip sites as a chance to talk about the damage that sexism, racism, and homophobia can do.

Similar to Celebrity Tabloids?

Purveyors of college-gossip sites generally laugh off criticism of their creations, painting their detractors as people who simply can't take a joke. The forums are like a playful simulation of celebrity tabloids, they say, where people on campuses are trashed or defended like Hollywood A-listers. Plus, the owners point to threads where students talk about which fraternities have the best parties or which sororities have the prettiest members as evidence that the sites offer harmless entertainment.

That playful defense breaks down, however, when you take a look at the derogatory and nasty statements that are posted. A discussion thread on CollegeACB lists "sluts" at California State University at Chico, naming women on the campus whom the anonymous posters claim to have had sex with. A recent posting at Peoples Dirt expresses a wish that a group of girls listed in a discussion thread would "die in there sleep and everyone just forgets about them."

In some cases, postings on the sites may cause harm to reputations, with serious impacts on students if the messages are seen by future employers or potential suitors. Unlike slurs scrawled on bathroom walls, online posts can be more public, and more lasting.

"Internet shaming creates an indelible blemish on a person's identity," wrote Daniel J. Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University, in his 2007 book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale University Press). "It's similar to being forced to wear a digital scarlet letter or being branded or tattooed. People acquire permanent digital baggage. They are unable to escape their past, which is forever etched into Google's memory."

Site administrators for both Campus Gossip and CollegeACB say they will remove abusive comments and respond to complaints from readers—something JuicyCampus rarely did.

Peter Frank, a sophomore at Wesleyan University who runs CollegeACB, told me he tries to "minimize damage while still maintaining the site's purpose" by complying with such requests.

Just how responsive the sites are to take-down requests remains to be seen, since students are just now arriving on campuses for the fall semester. "We technically don't have to take anything down, based on what we've been told by our lawyers," a leader of Campus Gossip told me recently. He refused to give his real name, explaining that every employee of the site goes by the pseudonym Lance Lohan. "We choose to do that just to stay on the safe side of things."

So far the courts have largely agreed with "Mr. Lohan," to the frustration of Mr. Solove.

"I don't see why it has to be that way," the law professor told me in a recent interview. "Just like when you drive, it's not a free-for-all," he added, equating the current laws governing online forums to a road without traffic lights or stop signs. "It's like if we looked at the roads and said, There's just nothing to be done—let's just abolish all rules of the road."

Are Colleges Required to Act?

An incident at Hofstra University in January raised the question of whether colleges are already obliged to intervene when one of their students is a target on a gossip Web site. A female student found her name posted on JuicyCampus in a message calling her a "slut," a "whore," and other, more colorful and sexually explicit names. The student's mother contacted a dean at the university, asking the institution to block access to JuicyCampus or take other action to remove the slurs, but she says administrators told her that since the forum operated outside the university's control, there was nothing they could do. That was the position most colleges took when faced with similar situations.

So the parent filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, arguing that under Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, the university must respond to any sexual-harassment incident involving students, even if it takes place in an online forum. The complaint argued that real harm was done to the female student by the comments, and that the "gender- and sex-specific harassment has interfered with her ability to learn in an environment of equal educational opportunity."

In August the Education Department issued its ruling in the case. It found that because the comments were posted anonymously and not necessarily by students, and because the mother who complained did not identify her daughter by name so that the university could follow up, "the university had insufficient information to investigate or otherwise respond to the complainant's concerns." Officials at Hofstra say that they take such incidents seriously, and that they advised the mother to have her daughter report the conduct to the campus police (which she did not do).

Security on Campus, an advocacy group that represented the student in the case, said it planned to appeal the ruling. It also issued a news release claiming victory, arguing that the department's willingness to even consider the complaint means that gossip Web sites fall under Title IX guidelines.

Other observers, though, said the ruling gave no help to other college officials wondering if they would have to respond if they knew the identity of the victim and had reason to believe the anonymous attackers were also students.

Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, said she hoped that stamping out harassment on campus-gossip Web sites would be considered a matter of civil rights.

She makes the case in an article published in the Michigan Law Review this year called "Law's Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment." In it, she argues that law-enforcement officials fail to take seriously complaints about online anonymous comments, and that using "civil-rights remedies" may be the most effective way to pursue such acts.

"Women should not have to wait until cyberharassment fulminates into physical violence for law enforcement to address it," she wrote. "A civil-rights agenda … would demonstrate that the Internet is not the lawless Wild West, just as court settlements and state legislation made clear that the home does not insulate abusing husbands from societal intervention."

I asked Ms. Citron whether writing about the newest campus-gossip sites in this newspaper could do more harm than good, by helping to publicize the sites and bring them visitors. No, she answered, making the case that administrators can't just look away as these incidents continue.

"These sites are like termites," she said. "We can't pretend they're not there, because they're rotting out the house."

College 2.0 explores how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com.

Comments

1. paievoli - September 01, 2009 at 05:37 pm

This can all be solved by the school blocking the website internally. These kind of sites are a blemish to the use of the Internet. And they should be sued out of business. Cyber-bullying is no joke. Individuals have been hurt both mentally and physically by such actions. If schools would adopt their own social networks it would give these students an outlet to vent while still giving the school administrative control over the site. These are still children whether they are over 18 or not. Their parents have entrusted their safety to us as academics. We need to value that trust. The Internet is the most powerful communication tool since television. I believe in net neutrality but not at the cost of someone's psyche. This is similar to screaming fire in a crowded theatre. You have the right to express yourself but not endanger ours.
http://www.theCampusCenter.com

2. bekka_alice - September 01, 2009 at 06:26 pm

Even if blocked internally, students can still reach the site externally. I see no reason people posting things to this kind of site should not be subject to legal action the same as someone who engaged in slander would if not on a web site. Anonymity should not extend to harassment or slander. The claim that the site is a sort of celebrity parody does not hold water; students are not "public figures" and it's an inappropriate comparison.

3. angelfire1712 - September 03, 2009 at 05:43 am

colleges/universities use to be halls of higher learning but in recent times I see it as an extension of the highschool mentality. I guess that's what happens when you allow anyone to get in. Not only that...you have the hellicopter parents...!?! Why it use to be, you went off to college, you did wo to strick out on your own, to get away from your parents and become your own person...ah, but alas, it's an extension of highschool so why are we so surprised that these 'punks' binge drink until they die and write gossip like old people and slander others like two year olds; they haven't been allowed to grow up and take responsibility. They look at the chance to get educated as a joke, they think their profs are jokes, and they think their parents are baffoons for spending the bucks to send them. The umbilicle cord seems to follow them right from college and into their personal relationships and/or careers. Then parents expect colleges to protect them from everything...it is a nanny state isn't it? Well,the one emailer who made the comment that bullying and slander can be handled legally is right. So if someone out their in collegeland is being picked on...sue their ass and their parents too, because, afterall...it's the parents who put those idiots there.

4. dank48 - September 03, 2009 at 08:26 am

As Ripley asks in Aliens 2, "Was there a sharp drop in IQ while I was gone?"

This is grotesque. When did the libel and slander laws get abolished? Since when does the Constitutional right to free speech protect the reckless and the irresponsible and the just plain vicious? If I were a lawyer, I know where I'd be carving out a reputation.

As the man said, we don't throw up our hands and toss out the traffic laws just because a few people can't drive safely and considerately? The pursuit of happiness grants no exemption from respecting the rights of others. I believe in the Second Amendment, but my right to keep and bear arms does not give me the right to come into your home or office for target practice.

I just can't believe that adults can regard this as anything more than a technological problem to be dealt with--legally and without violating anyone's Constitutional rights, but effectively and expeditiously. Nice long jail terms will help these ignorant yahoos reflect on the error of their ways.

5. eelalien - September 03, 2009 at 08:34 am

I still cannot understand how the post-high school four-year getaway from reality can continue to exist in the new economic reality. Kids don't mature in these hothouses of debauchery and stupidity - maturity to full adulthood is actually delayed and stunted in many cases. Plus, let's face it - an undergraduate degree alone is not what it used to be in terms of hiring candidates for new jobs. And for the life of me I still don't understand how the laws governing slander and libel are somehow set aside when it comes to the Internet. I am all for freedom of speech, but come on - vile hate speech and malicious gossip created for the specific purpose of degrading, demeaning, humiliating, and deliberately harming someone's reputation certainly fall under the category of public slander. If someone were caught nailing paper flyers to telephone poles with the very same messages as posted via the Internet, would they not be subject to the laws regarding slander...?

6. terrapindan - September 03, 2009 at 09:20 am

"Peter Frank, a sophomore at Wesleyan University who runs CollegeACB, told me he tries to "minimize damage while still maintaining the site's purpose" by complying with such requests."

Minimize the damage? I think it is clear to all of us that these sites are purely for the entertainment value of harassing and ridiculing others, so I would think that minimizing the damage would be to eliminate the site. I'm just saying.

We do have to also consider why these sites go up in the first place. While I don't completely agree with the comparison to celebrities, we as a society get a kick out of others' misfortunes. How many people are hooked on FML? While not completely absolving the obsession factor, the difference with that site is that people are posting their own stories (as far as we know). Still, we sit at home and watch Wipeout or Cops and browse Twitter to see what comments people have posted. We may wonder where this stuff comes from, but we are in a sense seeking it out. I certainly believe that sites airing out real or fake dirty laundry have taken the extreme step of slander. I am just not surprised by their existence.

JuicyCampus had a direct effect on the mental state of many students at my previous institution. Their personal business was posted online without their consent with the vast majority of the content being false. As one site goes does, two more are in its place and have branched out to more colleges and universities than JuicyCampus originally did. We are at a dangerous time now that one public online comment could mean social isolation in one's physical/social environment. If you are still unsure of the potential individual effects of these sites, imagine the hysteria that has popped up over H1N1. Think about what happens when a person walks out with a face mask on (even if they don't have the flu). Now think about the higher exposure and faster distribution of information that one of these sites is capable of. If you feel like hiding in your home/apartment when you have a stuffy nose, I think you have made the connection.

7. dank48 - September 03, 2009 at 01:01 pm

I think eelalian has hit the nail on the head: Why on earth would slander and libel somehow become immune from legal action merely because the internet is the medium through which such crimes are committed?

8. jesor - September 03, 2009 at 01:22 pm

The problem with the libel and slander laws is that there is nothing in the law that I know of (and I'm not a legal scholar) to compel the sites to track who posts what. That means that while you may be able to get a "take down" order from a court, you cannot necessarily compel a site to start tracking information on who posts what. This means that there is literally nobody to sue. I mean sure,you can file a suit against a John Doe in many jursidictions, but until you actually figure out who the defendant is (and prove that particular person should be a defendant), a legal case gets you nowhere. As for blocking, there are broader first amendment issues involved and unless these sites cross the line into obscenity, you'll really have a hard time holding that up in court as well. The solution in this case would be legislative, allowing for the compulsion of a site to keep records of who posts what when illegal behavior is either encouraged by the site or when it is endemic to the site. Legally, this may be the same concept as the craigslist prostitution issues. Thus far, no legislature has touched it though.

9. jdonne5 - September 03, 2009 at 01:46 pm

They use pseudonymns just to "stay on the safe side?" I think this is both blatantly hypocritical (read: chicken) as well as an excellent barometer for how volatile (and harmful) sites like these can be. Remarkable that they haven't (self-)identified the irony.

10. chronanon - September 03, 2009 at 10:25 pm

This story just makes me sad.

11. tolerantly - September 03, 2009 at 10:45 pm

And Wesleyan maintains Peter Frank as a student because....

12. danmaratto - September 04, 2009 at 04:22 pm

If you don't want it printed, don't do it

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