The debate over how to respond to the anonymous gossip site JuicyCampus.com has, so far, centered mostly on free speech concerns. But now the attorneys general of Connecticut and New Jersey are trying a different angle: consumer fraud.
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Last week, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram subpoenaed JuicyCampus for information about how the site enforces its own terms and conditions as part of an investigation into possible violation of state consumer fraud laws. Then last Thursday, in response to complaints from Yale students, parents, faculty members and administrators, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 joined his New Jersey counterpart in investigating whether JuicyCampus misleads consumers by failing to follow its own rules prohibiting defamatory and abusive posts.
The site’s terms and conditions state that users may not post “unlawful, threatening, abusive, tortious, defamatory, obscene, libelous, or invasive” comments and that minors must submit a parental consent form, but it provides no mechanism for monitoring violations of these terms or barring users who break them.
“I am extremely troubled and disgusted with the assorted, vulgar, hateful, racist and sexist discussion threads, [many of which] serve no purpose other than to besmirch the reputations of college students,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter to JuicyCampus founder Matt Ivester, a 2005 Duke graduate. “The fact that your site so proudly touts the anonymity with which this public degradation occurs, is appalling and unacceptable, particularly in light of JuicyCampus’ own Terms and Conditions.”
Administrators at Yale, the only college in Connecticut featured on JuicyCampus, said they welcomed the investigation as a chance to confront the Web forum in ways they could not. Yale is not pursing legal action on its own against the site.
“While we find Web sites that promote harassment and intimidation inappropriate and we would encourage students to challenge material that they feel is libelous, we do not feel that censoring a Web site is consistent with Yale’s free expression policies,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.
Salovey’s stance represents a change in tone from views he expressed last month when the University mulled over possible responses to the site. At that time, he told the News that anonymous speech like that on JuicyCampus should not enjoy the protections afforded other speech.
The administration had previously considered options including banning the site from on-campus Internet access.
Yale’s letters asking JuicyCampus to remove libelous material about Yale students have gone unanswered, Salovey said.
The attorney general wields greater investigative authority than a private entity like Yale can muster, Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said. So she is counting on Blumenthal.
“We believe the most effective avenue is for us to support and cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation,” she said.
Milgram’s office also subpoenaed an online advertiser formerly associated with JuicyCampus about how JuicyCampus represented its operation and the kinds of advertising keywords it requested.
JuicyCampus’s public relations firm said Ivester would not comment on the investigations. In an interview with the News earlier this month, Ivester said he never expected the site to turn so nasty. But posts are the “personal responsibility” of the users, he said, not the site itself.
Blumenthal’s letter gives JuicyCampus until April 11 to comply.