There's a proposition floating through cyberspace called John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT), and it goes something like this: "Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad." In short, it means that the opportunity to post anonymous comments to a limitless Internet audience creates conditions likely to draw out the typical user's worst impulses. Though the hypothesis was proffered by a fictitious character in the webcomic Penny Arcade, it is to Internet behavior what E=mc2 is to physics.
It's also the phenomenon fueling a brewing face-off between Tennessee State University and college gossip website JuicyCampus.com. Two weeks ago, TSU blocked JuicyCampus from the university's Internet network, a move that has focused more media attention on the already embattled institution. (See "Financial Aid Woes, Poor Student Service Dog Tennessee State University" at nashvillescene.com.)
Created by Duke University alumnus Matt Ivester, JuicyCampus is an online message board that permits users from 500 colleges to anonymously discuss campus life. As the site states, "We don't ask for your name, email address, or other personally identifiable information in order for you to make a post. In fact, we prefer not to know who you are."
JuicyCampus does feature its share of innocuous posts, i.e., "Who thinks Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a great commencement speaker?" (Hey, we said "innocuous," not "intelligent.") But many more posts are juvenile, vulgar, homophobic or racist, and the overarching theme seems to be character assassination, with no need for factual basis.
Among the more popular topics: Who is the biggest slut on campus, who's got the biggest (or smallest) penis, who has an STD, who gives the best head, and who is on the down-low. Posts frequently mention full names, and occasionally include phone numbers and addresses. And if you're the victim, there may be nothing you can do about it. Say the site rules: "If someone posts your email address, your home address, your home phone number, or other contact information (no, your full name doesn't count), we'll consider deleting it if you notify us.... FYI, we may or may not read your complaint, and we may or may not respond to it."
Here are just a sampling of the 10 most viewed posts: "Where da hoes?," "Biggest Whores On Campus," "Who is the most psycho girl at UT?" and "Chicks with the loosest pussies"—the last of which currently features 126 replies, many offering the full names of women and the universities they attend.
So when a parent of a student who was named on JuicyCampus complained to TSU, Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Freeman was alarmed by what he saw. On Nov. 12, after some discussion with other administrators, Freeman had the site blocked from TSU's Internet network.
"Our network is for educational and research purposes," Freeman says. "I didn't just block it without going out to the students with some information for them to think about."
Judging from the stories in TSU student newspaper The Meter, there's been little backlash against the decision. "You can probably find students who'll complain," Freeman acknowledges. "The [student government association] president, Patrick Walker-Reese, was completely on board. He independently sought to have the site blocked. The newspaper hasn't come after me," he says, laughing. "Yet."
But JuicyCampus' Ivester is shocked by the decision. TSU is the first public school to block the site, and he's pissed—so pissed he fired off a press release blasting the decision. With the indignation of a wrongfully imprisoned dissident, Ivester let loose with this masterpiece of hyperbole: "This decision meant that TSU had just become the first public university to ban JuicyCampus.com from its servers, joining the ranks of the Chinese government in Internet censorship, and spitting in the faces of everyone who believes in free discourse online."
To be fair, Ivester has never claimed that JuicyCampus was improving the minds of tomorrow's leaders. "We have never purported to be raising the level of intellectualism on campus," he says. "We are a gossip website.... But the right to anonymous speech has been protected by the Supreme Court over and over again. It's very clearly established. For a public university to say that students who are attending their university and living on campus and using computers on the campus networks cannot go to certain websites, I think it's just shocking.... It's just not right for a public university that's funded by the government to be filtering their Internet."
Ivester claims the decision is incompatible with the mission of universities. "It's treating their students like little kids, and saying, 'Oooh, no, this isn't good for you. Don't go online and see that website.' Why have the First Amendment?"
Freeman, quite naturally, disagrees. "That's nonsense. TSU's Web network is not a public forum. There is no implicit attack on freedom of speech. Secondly, students can still access his website. There are many, many different ways, and I'm sure some students are taking full advantage of it.... We're simply saying as an institution we don't have to host his website on our network."
Freeman adds that TSU has an obligation to protect its students. "In the environment that we live in now, particularly on college campuses—post-Virginia Tech, post-Delaware State—we really have to be more mindful about gratuitous attacks.... What really bothered me is the anonymous nature of it. To me that's different from Facebook and MySpace, where you are identified and you invite people into your conversation. You have no idea who you're talking to. You have no idea who you're inciting."
But according to Nashville attorney Allen Woods, Ivester could have grounds for legal action. "There is an argument that a state university, as an arm of the government, does not have the right to infringe upon speech on its campus. There is certainly a reasonable argument that that is a violation of free speech... If you're regulating the means of communication...then you're effectively banning the speech."
Yet there are exceptions, says Woods. "The court has upheld exceptions for things such as obscenity.... And you can't necessarily slander somebody.... But the Supreme Court has done a pretty good job of limiting the number of exceptions."
Attorney David Hudson of Nashville's First Amendment Center agrees. "[TSU] is a public university, which is a governmental actor. Generally there are pretty high thresholds when government officials make content-based and viewpoint-based restrictions on speech. It certainly raises some First Amendment questions.... Students would definitely have standing."
"JuicyCampus raises some interesting questions about how much protection there is for anonymous online speech," Hudson says. "There is a federal law that's part of the Communications Decency Act, which provides a pretty broad swath of immunity for Internet content providers for, say, defamatory comments made by a third party. JuicyCampus is pretty protected under current law.
"The question I'd have with TSU is this: If you restrict access there, are you going to restrict access to other websites that somebody finds offensive? Where's the stopping point?"
It's an issue that Vanderbilt University wrestled with earlier this year. In spring 2007, freshman Chelsea Gorman was raped after going out for coffee. She returned to school in the fall, determined to move on with her life. Only a few close friends knew about her experience.
But on March 13 of this year, someone posted a cruel comment on JuicyCampus under the title, "Chelsea Gorman Deserved It." Gorman didn't know who posted the comment, but now the entire student body knows about her ordeal. The story gained national attention, and Gorman became the subject of a piece on ABC's 20/20.
But despite the post, Vanderbilt chose not to block the site. "There were some on campus who wanted us to block the website, but the decision was made not to do that for freedom of speech and First Amendment rights," says Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt's interim vice chancellor for public affairs. "Our goal was just not to bring attention to the JuicyCampus site. We trust our students to make their best judgments on what they read and what they write." The comment is still posted.
Ivester won't say whether JuicyCampus plans to take any legal action. "We're evaluating our options right now.... We are reaching out to a variety of groups that might be concerned with this."
TSU's Freeman may have some legal standing of his own. One argument that could support TSU's position involves privacy issues.
"There are common-law protections for individuals that run afoul of free speech protections at the same time," attorney Woods says. "If we have free speech, I'm allowed to say whatever I want. But what if it's not true? ...Depending on the level of exposure of the person—in other words, are you a private citizen or a public figure?—you're entitled to different levels of protection. The greatest protection is given to private citizens. You can't just make up lies about private citizens and go out and publish it."
Ultimately, these issues of privacy and slander vs. free speech on an anonymous Internet site are largely uncharted waters. "I think it will probably take a test case, to be honest with you," says the First Amendment Center's David Hudson. And perhaps that test case is about to take place in Nashville.
But if history is any precedent, it's quite likely that the slimeball profiting from the misfortune of others would win out. Though Ivester is widely reviled even in the libertarian world of cyberspace—a post on the blog Popehat says Ivester "is either a disingenuous douchebag or a moron of epic proportions. My money is on the former"—he does have a point. "The most significant threats to free speech (in the U.S. at least) tend to come not from tyrants who openly question the value of the First Amendment, but from well-meaning busybodies who want to protect people's feelings," he says in his press release.
Perhaps Ivester could have been more direct by quoting Woody Harrelson in the lead role of The People vs. Larry Flynt: "If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it will protect all of you."
xray: You linked to the Daily Caller as a source? Bwahahahahaha!
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