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.
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.
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.