JuicyCampus pushes the limits of free speech

From tabloid magazines to entertainment news, gossip has become a very profitable business. Most of the material is usually false and exaggerated. Just like in high school, everyone loves a piece of juicy gossip, whether it’s true or not. Tabloid magazines on the racks of check out lines in grocery stores often catch my eye, and I can’t resist peeking inside to read an article or two.

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By Sai’da Green

By Sai’da Green

From tabloid magazines to entertainment news, gossip has become a very profitable business.

Most of the material is usually false and exaggerated.

Just like in high school, everyone loves a piece of juicy gossip, whether it’s true or not.

Tabloid magazines on the racks of check out lines in grocery stores often catch my eye, and I can’t resist peeking inside to read an article or two.

Sometimes I even buy the magazine, even though I know full well that most of the articles inside aren’t true.

Everyone participates in gossip or has participated in it at some point.

We tear apart and judge others, especially those in the public eye, and we see no harm in doing so, until we are the ones being gossiped about.

I’ve noticed that gossip tends to get especially vicious when it’s posted anonymously on Internet blogs and gossip Web sites.

These sites get into legal trouble all the time for the content of their sites.

One particular Web site that has recently come under fire is JuicyCampus.com.

JuicyCampus is an eight month old Web site that allows its users to cultivate and distribute gossip across a network of about 60 college campuses nationwide.

A quick look at the site revealed a number of posts that use derogatory terms to out people as homosexuals, whether true or not.

There were also posts suggesting that specific women students are sluts, often giving details about their supposed sexual activities.

In some cases, these posts contain a phone number or even a dorm address, encouraging others to seek contact with the person.

Other comments are sexist, racist, hateful and downright mean.

Many mention names of real students.

Some postings might be best described as cyber bullying. One posting implied a certain named female student was available for sex with strangers, and included her cell phone number and dorm information.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act grants Web service providers immunity from prosecution from libel committed by their users.

It’s one thing to protect the owner of a Web site when someone posts a defamatory message unbeknownst to the operator.

But sites like JuicyCampus exist solely to propagate gossip and should be held to a different standard.

In fact, JuicyCampus seems designed to shield its users from the threat of libel claims.

The site’s privacy page notes that it logs the numeric Internet protocol addresses of its users, but does not associate those addresses with specific posts.

That is unlike mainstream social-networking sites, which do maintain such detailed logs.

JuicyCampus also goes further by directing posters to free online services that cloak IP addresses.

“Just do a quick search on Google and find one you like,” JuicyCampus advises.

The site’s companion blog reminds users that “our terms and conditions require users to agree not to post anything that is defamatory, libelous, etc.”

But a few paragraphs later, the blog implies that it will rebuff anything short of a public safety query: “If your school calls upset about some girl being called a slut, we’re not handing over access to our server data. If the LAPD calls telling us there is a shooting threat, you better believe we’re gonna help them.”

So, basically, users should post at their own risk because although you can’t sue the actual website for libel, you can go after the individual that posted the information.

Freedom of speech is one thing, but JuicyCampus users are exercising these rights in ways that are hurtful and possibly dangerous.

There’s a difference between gossip among friends, or published gossip about celebrities, and spreading nasty rumors about private citizens.

Yes, the owners and operators of the site aren’t the ones who posted the offensive material but its still their responsibility to manage their site properly.

JuicyCampus is just too relaxed about what goes on their site.

If the owners and operators of the site are making money off the site’s popularity through advertisements, and for the mere fact that they created the site, it’s their responsibility to manage it properly and make sure that the users abide by the rules

If they can’t handle that responsibility, they shouldn’t be running the site in the first place.

There is nothing new about Web pages that contain rumors or lies about people.

In some cases, there is nothing that can be done.

Free speech does give people the right to say what they think.

But if the postings are libelous, defamatory, hateful or otherwise contrary to the site’s terms of service, they can be taken down and the individuals who posted the material can be sued.

And gossip can be entertaining, and I’ll admit that it is fun to read, especially when it has nothing to do with me.

If I found statements about myself on JuicyCampus, made by an anonymous source, I would sue for civil damages and ask for the posts to be taken down.

A basic principle of journalism is you have to know you have a valid source. If one quotes an uncredible source, and they cannot prove the statements validity, lawsuit!

JuicyCampus’s allowance of anonymous posts is only opening itself up to a world of litigation. Let the lawsuits commence!

These days everyone wants to broadcast their personal lives online, but users of these Web sites need to know that an online reputation is just as much a part of one’s permanent record as a grade point average or a credit score.

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