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Juicy Campus: Free Speech, But Is It Fraud?

Even as students on campuses in Charlottesville, Annapolis and across the country urge fellow collegians to steer clear of the malicious gossip being peddled on juicycampus.com, the number of lurid and slashing personal attacks posted on the increasingly popular site continues to soar.

The site, which I wrote about earlier this month, urges kids on 50 campuses nationwide, including the University of Virginia and the U.S. Naval Academy, to "give us the juice." The result is a catalogue of accusations of sexual promiscuity packed with real names of real students, many of whom don't even know they've been slurred online.

But much as college administrators and student leaders rail against the site and its promise to maintain the anonymity of those who post queries about the sexual availability and prowess of schoolmates, the authorities are stymied by federal law protecting Internet site operators from responsibility for what strangers post on their message boards.

Now, however, the state of New Jersey is moving against juicycampus.com. The state's attorney general, Anne Milgram, announced this week that New Jersey is investigating the web site for possible violations of consumer fraud laws.

"The site's User Conduct Terms require posters to agree that they will not post content that is abusive, obscene or invasive of another's privacy," according to a news release from Milgram's office. "JuicyCampus.com tells the public that this offensive content may be removed, but the site apparently lacks tools to report or dispute this material."

Using the fraud law to go after the site is clearly an attempt to do an end run around First Amendment protections and the federal law that dramatically limits the liability of web site publishers for reader-generated material on their sites. But just because the New Jersey investigation involves a novel legal approach doesn't necessarily make it wrongheaded or dishonest. If there is an emerging consensus that governments and courts lack the tools they need to protect citizens from abuse via new technologies, then the best solution is to write new law and subject it to the political process. But this attorney general's strategy is also legitimate--if she ends up moving against juicycampus.com, her charges would have to pass muster with the courts.

Milgram said the investigation began after her office received a complaint from a student who found herself named on the site, along with her address. The only New Jersey college included on juicycampus is Princeton University, where administrators told the Chronicle of Higher Education that they initiated no action against the web site. But Princeton in recent days has disappeared from juicycampus.com's list of colleges, though the site's Princeton message boards are still open to public view.

There, some readers have expressed concern about the investigation and whether the state will try to do what juicycampus.com promised its participants it would never do--strip them of their anonymity. But other readers seem undaunted by the state's action; they're referring students to another site that seeks to do the same thing as juicycampus.com

That's the thing about the web. You can try to lop off a limb, but it instantly regenerates. Which is why colleges and students across the country have decided to fight the ugly web site either by ignoring it or speaking out against it. Unless New Jersey's AG manages to carve out a new path, in the case of the Internet, the law is for the most part just not an available tool.



By Marc Fisher |  March 21, 2008; 8:22 AM ET
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Comments

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It's ironic that people paying to attend an institution, presumably for the purpose of getting a higher education and developing a more enlightened intellect, can't find anything better to do with their time than trash their fellow peers, instead of getting to know them, as a way to validate themselves and feel superior. People have the capacity to learn about and be awed by the universe around them, unlike any other species known to have lived. These kids have the priveledge to take every advantage of that, and instead choose to act in a way that even a monkey would be ashamed of...how pathetic.

Posted by: Rosslyn | March 21, 2008 10:14 AM

The First Amendment has never been read to protect defamation. The problem with this site is that its protection of users' anonymity frustrates the ability of private individuals to protect themselves against defamatory statements. I have no problem with a state AG stepping in on their behalf.

Posted by: Tom T. | March 21, 2008 10:18 AM

Man. This makes me really happy that I graduated from college before the web made it big.

Posted by: h3 | March 21, 2008 11:22 AM

Embittered students could pull a page out of the RIAA's playbook and sue unnamed parties for slander. They could then slam juicycampus with a series of subpoenas that would cause the site monetary loss due to additional requirements for legal representation. In addition, it would make people realise that their anonymity is never guaranteed in the electronic world, because ip addresses are pervasive.

Posted by: Leesburger | March 21, 2008 12:16 PM

I would suggest that the CEO of juicycampus.com should be treated exactly like Balthasar Gérard (assassin of William of Orange).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balthasar_G%C3%A9rard

Posted by: Anonymous | March 21, 2008 12:20 PM

I simply don't understand why the laws of publishing don't apply to web sites. If the Post ran a story that was wildly defamatory and slanderous, the Grahams would be sued for their back teeth--and their front ones as well--and they would lose in court. Why should a site be allowed to hide behind "free speech?"

Posted by: Jack | March 21, 2008 4:14 PM

Once again: If you let Duke graduates have websites, this is what happens.

Posted by: Lindemann | March 21, 2008 7:20 PM

Who cares what they say, the only reason the website is being sued is because they don't make any money worth taking, if the press slanders then they get sued to no end because they make money. If you want this site shut down a thousand more will follow its path. Plus you can slander on anything electronic, whats the big difference, maybe if you don't want people to know what you did, don't do it.

Posted by: !!! | March 22, 2008 11:33 AM

look, i don't care who created the site, you don't have the right to sue them because they created a site where people could hurt others. that's what gossip does. if you want to sue, then sue the ones who wrote the gossip about others not the creator of the site. no, i do not agree that the site should still remain up and running but you can't punish a person for giving people the opportunity to speak theirs mind.
and another thing, this is to the people who write useless trash on JuicyCampus, just because free speech is at your disposal doesn't given you the right to abuse it.

Posted by: anonymous125 | April 1, 2008 10:26 PM

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