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

"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.
August 31, 2009

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