The website juicycampus.com which posts anonymous gossip about college students and professors by name boasts that it was "founded on August 1, 2007 with the simple mission of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses." Call it a modern view of free speech all the privilege and none of the responsibility.
A visit to the website yields what you might call the usual anonymous chat room fare crude language, ethnic slurs and graphic descriptions of probably fictitious sexual encounters. Yawn.
Except that this site encourages its anonymous participants to rate their professors, sorority girls, football players and other students by name. Don't like your grade? Your advances were rejected? Juicycampus.com is the perfect venue for payback.
"There is no way for someone using the site to find out who you are," the site assures users. You can smear others falsely without fear that your true identity will be known.
Some students have tried to fight back. As The Chronicle's Tanya Schevitz reported, UC Berkeley Panhellenic Council President Christina Starzak sagely sent out an e-mail that urged sorority leaders not to use the site. Students at Pepperdine University asked campus administrators to block the site from campus servers, which administrators declined. In a climate that thrives on free speech, censorship won't do.
"We think the Juicy Campus phenomenon will cycle out and the spectacular nature of it will be its own downfall," said Pepperdine spokesman Jerry Derloshon.
Me, I'm waiting for a horrific tragedy to happen followed by a huge lawsuit (or 20) that cuts into the profits of Juicycampus.com. I'll be rooting for the plaintiff's attorneys. There have to be some advantages to living in an overly litigious society.
Juicycampus creator Matt Ivester has worked to shield himself from lawsuits. The site tells students that they cannot post lies but the site does not takedown erroneous posts.
"We really aren't in a position to judge the validity of any given post," Ivester told The Chronicle in an e-mail. "If we started taking down posts by request, we would be limiting the free speech of our users, and that doesn't seem right."
Translation: It costs money to edit the site for accuracy and that doesn't seem right. There is money to be made posting anonymous gossip and that does seem right.
What if you don't like what someone says about you? What if what they write is false? The site suggests that you consider whether the posting might be considered a matter of opinion, whether it might be true, or whether the posting was "obviously meant to be a joke. Parody is protected by the First Amendment." If all of the above fail, there's this: "Finally, remember that you are reading a Web site run by people you don't know, containing comments made by people you don't know, concerning events which may or may not have occurred. You should take everything you read with a large grain of salt."
Bloggers can point to America's history of anonymous political pamphleteering as precedent for the free speech rights of anonymous words. But Thomas Paine risked execution or jail if his authorship of "Common Sense" had been known and he did so for principles in which he believed. Not for trash.
As Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, noted, "Gossip and rumors should never be published unless there is evidence." And: "The truth matters."
Thanks to the Internet, the last 10 years have passed from providing people with, as the saying went, "too much information" to too much disinformation. Sabato sees a huge cultural change between people of our generation and today's students: "We view privacy as sacrosanct; they view it as optional."
It isn't optional anymore. A trend that started with sites that allow children to post personal information and photos (that may haunt them into adulthood) has been updated. The college version allows other kids to play with other people's identities and treat them like a grain of salt.