Brandeis Students Struggle with JuicyCampus and Anonymous Speech

By on December 9, 2008

Last Friday’s edition of The Brandeis Hoot student newspaper carried a report about today’s inaugural meeting of the group "Students Against JuicyCampus." According to the Hoot, the group already boasts a Facebook group of 400 members. Comments by students in the meeting demonstrate that like many universities, Brandeis is doing a terrible job of educating students about the fundamental rights enjoyed by Americans. To wit:

The majority of the meeting was spent discussing the negative and positive effects of anonymous free speech. Erica Lubitz ’12 stated, "the purpose of anonymity is to make [people] comfortable to speak, but then it is used as a weapon."

Damien Lehfeldt ’09, the creator of the group, stated that his main problem with the website is that hurtful statements are posted anonymously. "[The anonymity] leaves people feeling helpless because they can’t argue against the posters," Lehfeldt said.

Lehfeldt suggested that the forums would be improved if posters had to sign their names, which was met with approval from other members of the group. Later on during the meeting, Omoefe Obgeide ’12 said, in regards to reducing the anonymity of the site, "at least that way we can engage in dialogues instead of just sitting and getting attacked.

While it is good to see students discussing an aspect of the First Amendment and free expression, it is hard to have an illuminating discussion when those participating seem to have no idea why anonymous speech is protected or why eliminating it might not be a good idea, and don’t seem to recognize that the validity of an argument does not necessarily ride on who is making it.

For instance, while one could argue that the point of anonymity is to make speech more "comfortable," it’s usually a bit more important than mere comfort. From Thomas Paine’s anonymous tract Common Sense to Andre Massena’s anonymous posters at Binghamton University, the traditional reason for anonymity is not so much comfort as it is avoiding very serious retaliation from those who would rather not hear what you have to say. In Paine’s case, the potential retaliation could have come in the form of death; in Massena’s case, career destruction. The degree of severity in these cases obviously varies (although I wouldn’t want to suffer either form of retaliation) but the principle is the same: People in a free society must be allowed to express their opinions anonymously. In return, those hearing the anonymous opinions are free to (and, indeed, wise to) discount the opinions expressed to a certain extent. Those who make decisions based on information from JuicyCampus are setting themselves up for making major mistakes.

Students Against JuicyCampus founder Daniel Lehfeldt’s arguments unfortunately go past simply being unexamined to being incoherent. I cannot determine why Lehfeldt believes that people are helpless to argue against anonymous statements. If anything, it is easier, for the very reason that people are less likely to give credence to anonymous rumors. Further, if a certain thread on JuicyCampus contains insults against a student, there is nothing to prevent that student from responding to those comments, anonymously or not. (Nothing prevents a poster from putting his or her name in his or her comment.) Another student’s comment that one cannot engage in a dialogue with an anonymous poster is also a head-scratcherafter all, JuicyCampus itself provides such a venue.

What the anonymity of JuicyCampus does take away is the ability of students to retaliate against those posting about them in the "real world" instead of in cyberspace. This has both its good and bad points. On the bad side, a traditional way of dealing with gossip is to personally confront those spreading it. Online anonymity makes this difficult, and therefore people are less restrained about the gossip they post online, assuming (most of the time correctly) that they will never be identified as the culprit. On the plus side, though, the anonymity means that those who have truthful stories to tell or issues to raise (presumably, JuicyCampus is not completely made up of salacious gossip about other students) will be far less likely to face an unjust university tribunal enforcing rules against expression that make a mockery of living in the United States.

This is a particularly high risk at Brandeis, as Professor Donald Hindley found out when he used the term "wetbacks" in his Latin American politics classin the context of criticizing it!and found himself convicted of "harassment" in a humiliating (for Brandeis) episode that helped put Brandeis on FIRE’s Red Alert list of the worst schools in the nation when it comes to individual rights. Hindley would have been far better off making his point on JuicyCampus, and that says nothing good about the environment for free speech at Brandeis.

Those dealing with the issues that JuicyCampus raises always need to remember that the root of the problem is the gossip posted on JuicyCampus by their fellow studentsnot the fact that there is a specific place for it on the Internet. The members of Students Against JuicyCampus believe their enemy is a website, but it’s not. It is the fact that people love to gossip, and the less accountable they are for it, the better they like it. It’s simply human nature. JuicyCampus holds up a very effective mirror to this nature, and students don’t like what they see. Students Against JuicyCampus would like to break the mirror rather than fix the problems it reflects. That’s human nature tooavoiding the real problem or blaming someone else for itbut it’s hardly a more praiseworthy tendency than gossip itself.

All of these issues make the recent efforts of the Student Union’s Office of Student Rights and Advocacy all the more important. This group of student leaders has been attempting over the past year to merge its "Student Bill of Rights" into the college’s Rights and Responsibilities handbook. Although the effort has been recently stalled, there are hopes that some resolution may be reached during the spring semester.

Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer sounded more than happy (like the rest of the Brandeis administration, led by President Jehuda Reinharz and Provost Marty Krauss) to censor speech, but was concerned about the logistics of how to do it:

Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer explained in an e-mail that many Brandeis students have been detrimentally impacted by the website. On the issue of the anonymous posters he wrote, "[they] are negatively impacted through the practice of anonymously posting disrespectful and hurtful things about other students…I worry about their motivation and the lack of self confidence and values exhibited."

[...]

Sawyer wrote in an e-mail about his own views on blocking the website. "[It] would be an act of principle, and we are certainly willing to act with that motivation. But such an act would not actually keep students or anyone from accessing the site via other means. And once done, what will be the next site brought forward for us to consider because of offensive material?"

I am pretty sure that free-speech champion and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis himself would not recognize censoring a website at his namesake university as "an act of principle" (or, at least, not as an act of worthy principle), but Sawyer makes a good point in spite of himself: "what will be the next site brought forward for us to consider because of offensive material?"

Good question. Now that everyone knows there’s a market for anonymous college gossip, it beggars belief that other outlets will not spring up alongside JuicyCampus and remain active even if JuicyCampus itself were to shut down. And, of course, there are hundreds of thousands of web forums where speech is pseudonymous where gossip could also take place. Not to mention that gossip will continue around campus whether online or offline. Starting with this kind of censorship is like getting on a treadmill that never stops or slows down, and from which you can never escape. Even Brandeis’ censorship-happy administrators recognize this. It’s an application of logic rather than principle, but at Brandeis, that’s a lot better than what we’ve been getting.

Schools: Brandeis University