Torch readers will remember the controversy surrounding JuicyCampus.com, the much-reviled gossip website that was a frequent target of calls for banishment from university networks on the basis of the often salacious, sometimes malicious comments posted to it by students. JuicyCampus folded on February 4, 2009, but its spirit lives on in the form of CollegeACB.com.
CollegeACB touts itself as existing on a higher plane than its predecessor; a site that "consistently hosts a higher level of discourse—while still making room for the occasional gossip post." Nonetheless, at Tulane University, CollegeACB has become enough of a concern among the student body that they have taken extreme measures against it, as reported recently by Tulane’s aptly titled student newspaper, The Tulane Hullabaloo.
The Hullabaloo reports that students voted in favor of banning CollegeACB from Tulane’s network, and Tulane’s student government, which also supports the ban, will ask the administration to ban the site.
This, as we’ve said before, is a dangerous impulse for many reasons, among them the risk of the slippery slope to censorship, as Robert explained here when Tennessee State University voted to ban JuicyCampus:
The success or failure of JuicyCampus as a business is not FIRE’s concern. But we are alarmed by the willingness of many universities in this nation to consider, and of Tennessee State to actually put in place, a block on an Internet site. College students are not children who need to be protected from harmful words. They are (with a few exceptions) adults who have the same political and expressive rights as any other adult in our society. Blocking JuicyCampus on public university campuses opens a door to censorship that our society absolutely cannot afford to open. If a site with simple college gossip is deemed to be so awful that it can be blocked from a university’s network, how in the world can we justify not blocking "hate sites" that might have racist, bigoted, or sexist views? If we block some hate sites and not others, are we endorsing those we do not block? And if we are willing to block sites that promote "hate," is there any reason at all to block sites that merely promote ideals that are at odds with those of the university, such as those that might scorn "diversity training" or "tolerance?"
Robert’s thoughts echoed what Will had to say when discussing JuicyCampus here on The Torch in March of 2008:
Simply blocking access from campus computers to a site is a lousy way to "solve" the JuicyCampus problem. For one thing, any such "block" is painfully easy to get around: all students have to do is leave campus or establish a proxy connection, rendering the block more symbolic than effective. But even if the block were somehow absolute and impenetrable, it’s still a bad idea. That’s because once a school or student government begins to censor particular sites, it has embarked down a perilous—and likely slippery—path. One may reasonably ask: should campuses filter out any sites? For instance, should they filter out obscene sites? While they arguably have the power to do so, it makes more sense from a policy perspective to put the onus squarely on the individual users-because once site-blocking is introduced, it may be difficult to stop. It seems obvious that Yale, for example, should not block access to sites that insult or defame George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But if not them, what about the school’s president? Or the student government president? Or any student? And once one student’s site is blocked for insulting another student, how will administrators or student government leaders deal with the next dozen incoming requests to take down insulting sites? (FIRE has seen these useless attempts to "referee" online speech before at the University of Central Florida, where a student was charged with harassment in March 2006 for calling a candidate for student government a "jerk and a fool" on Facebook.com.) It’s troubling to think that student governments feel themselves worthy of deciding what content their peers may or may not view online. Indeed, site-blocking is especially inappropriate on a college campus, considering that there are undoubtedly some academic uses for sites like JuicyCampus. (Sociology, anyone?)
The urge to censor, when indulged, is often self-defeating. Instead of repressing information, the very fact of censorship often guarantees still more attention to that which one is trying to suppress.
Some of the students quoted by the Hullabaloo, unfortunately, seem happily unaware of the dangers here:
Alessi-Friedlander said that she supported the proposed ban on the Web site.
"I’m not looking at it from a constitutional point of view," Alessi-Friedlander said. "It’s just so offensive, so racist, so superficial and anti-Semitic, so it never crossed my mind in that way."
Free speech on campus is in a sad state these days if it really never crosses students’ minds to consider whether the speech that so offends them might in fact be protected by the First Amendment, and that making bad speech invisible does not amount to defeating it in the marketplace of ideas.
We hope that Tulane administration rejects this suggestion and that students heed our prior warnings and reconsider this ill-conceived ban.