After campus gets ‘juicier,’ Yale considers legal options

JuicyCampus.com showed up at Yale uninvited. Now the administration is looking for ways to show it to the door.

Lured by the Web site’s much-touted promise of anonymity, students around the country have embraced the chance to gossip without fear of identification on the JuicyCampus site, whose exposure and prominence on the ever-popular Facebook.com has fueled a slew of coverage in collegiate and professional media outlets nationwide. As Yale’s section of the anonymous online message board has experienced increasing volume — and increasing vitriol — Yale administrators, under pressure from students and parents who have complained to residential college deans, are considering the University’s legal options for restraining the site’s presence on campus.

Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry has consulted the University’s general counsel about the possibility of blocking the site from Yale’s network or punishing users who log onto it. Yale’s lawyers have contacted JuicyCampus about University concerns, Gentry said.

Choices currently on the table, administrators said, include asking JuicyCampus to remove offensive posts, trying to identify and discipline posters of allegedly defamatory or harassing comments, or banning access to the site from on-campus Internet access.

“When you have a forum that’s on the computer, that’s anonymous, that’s the only place where you can say those things without getting punished — it’s a problem,” Gentry said.

Gentry said that, in an effort to address this problem, he wrote to Yale’s general counsel asking whether anything can be done about Web sites “that don’t have students’ interest in mind.”

But there are challenges in confronting JuicyCampus and its users. Punishing students or blocking the site on the University’s network could run afoul of Yale’s historically robust free-speech policy. And technological and legal hurdles could hinder efforts to bring the site and its users to court.

While the administration deliberates, students who have been personally targeted, or those who are offended by the site, are intent on releasing the Web site’s grip on the Yale community.

“We can’t let this become part of our lives at Yale,” said Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09, the Women Center’s former political-action coordinator.

JuicyCampus founder, 2005 Duke University graduate Matt Ivester, said in a phone interview he conceived of the forum as a place where students could gossip without fear of consequence from peers or administrators, but he never expected the site’s content to turn so nasty.

“It’s a gossip site and we never said that it’s not,” he said. “I guess we didn’t realize how mean some people can be.”

But one Yale freshman, who has been targeted by particularly violent posts that called her a “slut” and accused her of having genital herpes, said it was inevitable that the site’s anonymity would be used for personal attacks.

“It becomes a vehicle for hatred and harassment,” she said. “People should be held accountable for what they said.”

She has been talking to her college dean about taking action, she said.

Students interviewed said the site had reached a critical mass of readership and can no longer simply be ignored.

“We don’t have the option to ignore the site anymore because our own student newspaper decided to put it on the front page,” said Presca Ahn ’09, a coordinator at the Women’s Center, in reference to an article in the Feb. 11 edition of the News.

Banning the site

The option of banning the site altogether could go against Yale’s official policy of protecting freedom of expression “even when some members of the University community fail to meet their social and ethical responsibilities.”

But the same protection might not extend to anonymous speech, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.

“Anonymous speech does not enjoy the same protections afforded to other kinds of expression — expression where individuals stand behind their words, by Yale’s policies,” he said.

The official policy does not mention any exceptions for anonymous speech.

University President Richard Levin said Thursday that he was unfamiliar with JuicyCampus and the surrounding controversy, but blocking any Web site “wouldn’t be our first instinct of response.”

“I tend to think offensive speech is better countered with more speech, with counterargument, rather than by barring access,” he said.

Another college featured on JuicyCampus — Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. — received national attention after its student government voted 23–5 last month to ban the site.

Banning JuicyCampus would be the preferable response for some Yalies, including the Women’s Center’s board, which sent a letter to the administration this week urging action on the issue.

Andy Levine ’08 agreed the administration should banish the Web forum from Yale servers because a site devoted to anonymous gossip can only hurt people, as it has, he said. His friends have had to answer to embarrassing rumors spread about them on the site, he said.

“If only bad can come out of something, there’s no problem banning it,” he said. “It’s not a free-speech matter.”

But Ivester said free speech is central to his site and should be to universities, too.

“We’d be really surprised if schools decided to ban a Web site that encourages free speech,” he said.

Students taking action

Administrators are not the only ones looking for solutions to the JuicyCampus menace. The Women’s Center hosted a discussion Tuesday about the offensive content on the site, much of which board members said tended toward sexism and objectification of women.

Many student concerns are not specific to gender, but based on the general indecency of the site’s content.

“Anyone who looks at that Web site should be appalled by what’s on there,” Alice Buttrick ’10 said. “Your views on gender and sexuality aside, it doesn’t matter who’s being attacked — personal attacks are just not acceptable.”

Students — some of whom are ostensibly affiliated with the Women’s Center — have been clogging the site’s Yale discussion boards with posts intended to overwhelm and overshadow its use for gossip. The students have posted everything from musings on the weather to the full text of the U.S. Constitution and feminist treatises.

After the meeting at the Women’s Center had been announced in a JuicyCampus thread, a lawyer for JuicyCampus called the Center to warn them about actions that could interfere with the site’s operations or violate its terms of use, board members said.

Ivester did not deny that an attorney affiliated with the site contacted the Center.

The Yale College Council currently has no position on JuicyCampus and has not yet discussed the issue. But YCC President Rebecca Taber ’08 said that, while something needs to be done to curb the site’s damage to the Yale community, she worries that trying to ban it could draw more attention to the site.

“Whenever something is a forbidden fruit, people will be more enticed to find out what it’s about,” she said.

Ivester said the site’s heavy traffic and “thousands” of requests to expand to new campuses demonstrate that JuicyCampus serves a real and legitimate purpose on college campuses.

“Just based on the number of students coming and checking it out daily, we’ve created something that there’s a clear demand for, and that’s good thing,” he said.

If achieving that goal has negative consequences, that is the fault of a lack of “personal responsibility” of the users, he said, not the site itself. He advised people offended by the site simply not to read it and people targeted on the site “not to make it into a bigger deal than it is,” he said. “People know that it’s unsubstantiated gossip and you shouldn’t believe everything your read on there.”

Overall, he said, feedback to the site has been mixed, and a few mean-spirited commentors should not ruin it for everyone else.

“Some people like having a place where they can express themselves without worrying about having an unpopular opinion,” he said. “Some people are not happy — maybe these are the people who have something to hide.”

Squeezing the Juice

Ivester’s deference to the responsibility of the site’s users is supported by federal law: In most cases, Web sites enjoy generous protection from lawsuits, legal experts said.

Internet hosts are insulated by federal law from liability for content others post on their message boards, Daniel Solove LAW ’97, a law professor at The George Washington University, wrote in an e-mail to the News.

In its terms of use, JuicyCampus boasts immunity to liability for content that users post, and pledges not to track individual posts or users.

But Parry Aftab, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in privacy and online abuse, said she sees two potential chinks in JuicyCampus’ legal armor.

A site is not responsible for users’ posts only if it merely conveys information and has no role in editing the content as a matter of policy and practice, she said. But JuicyCampus’ encouragement of racy content, she said, could make it responsible for the resulting posts.

Ivester said JuicyCampus does not interfere with content, except for removing spam and copyrighted material, which he said is consistent with federal law.

Aftab also said JuicyCampus could be sued for consumer fraud for violating its “always anonymous” slogan.

The Web site did track down a user at Loyola Marymount University in California when he posted a bomb threat in December 2007, and provided the information to the authorities, Ivester confirmed.

If JuicyCampus has the capability to track posts in some cases, it has a legal obligation to do so consistently, Aftab said. Falsely promising users never to compromise their anonymity could be cause for a civil action, she said.

Ironically, the Web site that invites users to say nasty things under the cover of anonymity could be vulnerable to litigation for not adequately delivering on that very promise, she said.

JuicyCampus does not guarantee anonymity but will not release any data unless ordered to by law enforcement or court subpoenas, Ivester said.

Punishing the posters

Besides going after JuicyCampus itself, the posters of alleged defamation or harassment could be sued, Aftab said.

A new federal law has made cyber-stalking, which includes anonymous online communications, criminally punishable by up to two years in prison, she said.

In several anonymous online libel cases, courts have subpoenaed Internet service providers for information leading to the identification of posters to online comment boards, John Morris ’81 LAW ’86, director of the Internet Standards, Technology and Policy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., said in an interview with the News in January.

But depending on how much effort the commenters put into cloaking their identities, there may still be significant technological barriers to finding them, he said.

Some Yalies have already felt the sting of anonymous online speech and have experienced firsthand difficulties of apprehending their attackers.

Two Yale Law School students are currently suing the anonymous commenters on another Web forum, AutoAdmit.com, for defamation. A federal judge granted their requested in January to subpoena several ISPs in the hopes of unmasking the commenters.

JuicyCampus launched last August and currently operates at 60 colleges.

Comments

  • Student

    China must really be rubbing off on Yale. Let's ban anything that offends us!

  • Jennifer

    Colleges have to rpotect their endowments from lawsuits. Try calling someone a "slut" the business world. Neither college nor the workplace is a place to harass, save it for your own time or virtually any other public forum.

  • Anonymous

    You realize that it was the YDN's own advertisement for JuicyCampus (masquerading as a loathsome "article" by Heather Robinson) that made the website an issue at Yale in the first place, right?

  • Anonymous

    #2, JuicyCampus is "virtually any other public forum."

  • Major Hughes

    The Offices of Student Affairs are like the Stasi, only less accountable.

  • Free Speech Rules

    How typical of the feminazis to want to ban something that dares to conflict with their sexist ideology.

    They have only succeeded in making it more popular. Down with tyrants!

  • Ricardo L Rodriguez MD

    The burning issue for universities seems to be how "free" is "free speech". Several years ago many opted to ban free speech under the euphemism of "speech codes" banning "offensive" speech. The fly in the ointment is, offensive to who? Thus Universities find themselves in the Orwellian position of proclaiming "freedom of speech", while punishing free speech that "offends". The definition of who is offended legitimately, and who is not, defines the true seat of ideological power in the institution. Some speech is more equal than another.
    A University is not like a business, in that a business is dedicated to a particular product or point of view, and not its competitor, in order to sell it to you. The University, on the other hand is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, to be considered by you, as an individual with free will.
    The problem with Universities since the adoption of "offensive" speech codes is that they have chosen a particular ideological product (that which is not "offensive") shunned its competitor (that which is "offensive), and is spoon feeding it to the students, as if unsure of the power of some ideas over others.
    The argument of anonimity of speech vs."standing behind your words" is antithetical to democratic dialogue. Indeed one of the greatest tools of social coercion is to force all speech to be sourced to an individual. Indeed, one of the only outlets of freedom in oppressive regimes is underground literature. The ultimate expression of this approach to "free speech" being making one's vote in the open for everyone to see, as is done in Cuba, so dissenters may be quickly identified.
    The university's instinct to withold action for now and battle noxious ideas with more worthy ones is the only approach consistent with the university's stated goals of free speech and academic freedom.

  • Anonymous

    Juicy is disgusting but I don't know the legalities of banning it. Trademark might be one angle. If the NFL can regulate the use of "Super Bowl," Yale should be able to regulate how its brand is used or misused. I'd like to see them force SWAY to drop the Y since it was not a university sponsored event and damaging to the Yale brand.

  • Townie

    So you Smart Folks at Yale are going to save Free Speech by destroying it? And of course your commitment to Free Speech remains consonant with the obligation to protect open and wide-ranging public discourse by stamping your boot heel down on any "open and wide-ranging public discourse" you disagree with.

    Swell.

    George Orwell….Eat Your Heart Out.

  • Jonathan Edwards 2010

    Are we going to ban all anonymous message boards at Yale? There are plenty of them out there, I am a member of many of them, and if Yale bans them, I for one will be extremely angry.

    If they violate my first amendment rights, I will be extremely pissed.

  • Major Hughes

    Jennifer, the difference is that in the corporate world, you are being paid for your services. On college campuses, the student is paying for the college's services.
    College is about the free exchange of ideas. Even ideas that are offensive to you.
    Unaccountable higher education administrators have failed in their duties to protect this freedom of ideas and chose to use their powers to make life easier for themselves (anti-speech codes). Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  • Shthar

    yes kids, speech is free.

    you can say or print whatever you want.

    But if that speech is judged to be libelous, violate copywright, or fraudulent, you will have to pay for it.

    Or at least pay a lawyer.

  • Anonymous

    .
    .
    =============================
    . SHAME ON ALL OF YOU
    =============================

    > But the same protection might not extend to anonymous speech, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. “Anonymous speech does not enjoy the same protections afforded to other kinds of expression — expression where individuals stand behind their words, by Yale’s policies,” he said.

    Actually, historically, it has just as much protection. How else do you expect whistleblowing to be a reasonable option? How do you think one stops reprisals on the speaker by those accused of wrongdoing?

    This is so wrongheaded, it's not even funny.

    FREE SPEECH IS ABOUT DISPUTE.

    Anonymous speech should always be taken with a hefty grain of salt -- and gossip is even moreso, anonymous or "nonymous".

    Many important speeches have first appeared in an anonymous form. Many individuals have spoken out against tyranny because they could do so without fear of instantaneous and massive reprisal that would utterly destroy them and silence their message before it even was heard.

    Shame on ANYONE who does not grasp the importance of anonymous speech in a free society -- ESPECIALLY those of you who have reached college age -- or better -- and speak out against it.

    Yes, there will be abuses -- but the fact that there are people out there who will speak racism from behind white sheets does not mean all must speak in the open light of day.

    "The only social order in which freedom of speech is secure is the one in which it is secure for everyone… and, as those who call for censorship in the name of the oppressed ought to recognize, it is never the oppressed who determine the bounds of the censorship. Their power is limited to legitimizing the idea of censorship."
    - Aryeh Neier -

    "'We must all be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for the common good.'… But that's exactly what destroys everyone's freedom, because people who have a choice will never all agree with any one person's idea of what's best for them, and the only way you'll ever get them to go along is by force. The institutions of a free society become obstacles to the plan and get swept aside to be replaced by coercion. And once you've made that start, the end of the line is the secret police, the Gestapo, the Gulag, and the concentration camp."
    - James P. Hogan, 'The Mirror Maze' -

    "A function of free speech under our system of government is to INVITE DISPUTE. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea."
    - Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

    "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could easily defeat us all."
    - Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

    "Those who suppress Freedom always do so in the name of Law and Order."
    - John Lindsay -

    Freedom is not an individual effort. Yours comes only if you grant others theirs.

    I repeat -- shame on you. All of you.

  • Anonymous

    Erm…there are plenty of venues for anonymous speech. Juicy just happens to be used primarily for calling other students (by name) sluts and whores, and accusing them of having any number of venereal diseases. There's no discussion, just mudslinging of a particularly nasty variety. And of course, the Women's Center has been using that anonymity to make the site impossible to use by spamming it with long feminist tracts.

    No one would post an expose about racism, or blow the whistle on corruption, on JuicyCampus. That's not what the site is for. They'd come here, or anonymously e-mail the YDN, or any other of a hundred news outlets. Or even just put up posters on campus.

    Did you even visit the site?

  • realist

    it has been decided for us so no worries

  • Anonymous

    I have personally been a victim of slander on this website, and I probably have a case for IIED, but I don't think Yale should do anything about it. The most significant issue is that we are taking this so seriously. By debating this topic, and by threatening legal action, we are only legitimizing the medium. I say let it be. If you are so self-absorbed that you believe this site may hurt your chances at the 2036 election, then you probably deserve the extra anxiety over the next 28 years.

  • Free Rant

    Twisting your rhetoric of free speech around to suit whatever you like doesn't make it right. Slander is wrong. Plain rudeness is wrong. This is an example of "extreme individualism," and if you've done your cultural anthropology reading, you'd know that's not what our constitution (ie primeval reality) meant when it was written.

    You (collectively) are the leaders of tomorrow. I hope you clean up your act.

  • please…

    If people want to exercise their first amendment rights so badly, they should have the balls to say what they want to say, with their name attached to it.

    Kids, there's a difference between your precious "free speech" and well, um, threats and harassment. Those are illegal already, and taking legal action against a site that allows anonymous threats (yes, just look at the site) to be posted is not unconstitutional. If you threaten someone in person or with your name attached to the threat (or harassment) you get punished. Same should go for online. Wow. Brush up on the Constitution, please.

    harassment and threats are not, and never have been protected by the Constitution.