It was only a matter of time before some university decided to ban the gossip website JuicyCampus.com from its network, and now one has: Tennessee State University in Nashville. According to a November 12 letter from Vice President for Student Affairs Michael A. Freeman (see page 6 of the November 17 edition of The Meter, Tennessee State’s student newspaper), Tennessee State blocked the website from access through campus networks because it "does not fit with the legacy, spirit, and reputation of Tennessee State University." Nashville’s The Tennessean ran a short article on the ban today.
Before I address Tennessee State’s action at length, it is imperative that people understand what JuicyCampus is and what it is not. JuicyCampus is a anonymous online forum for college students that encourages them to gossip about campus-related or personal topics of their own choosing. JuicyCampus does not generate its own content, and it does not suggest topics. The content on JuicyCampus, therefore, solely emanates from college or university students or those impersonating them. Further, while the site encourages "gossip," this does not mean that all or even most posts are false, insulting, or any combination of the two. In fact, my somewhat cursory exploration of the site turned up some very cruel gossip (that may or may not also have been true), some harmless gossip, and just about everything in between. Readers of this blog are welcome to look for themselves, of course, and form their own judgments.
JuicyCampus, in short, is exactly what its users make of it. In this way, it differs from celebrity gossip blogs like TMZ.com or Perez Hilton, or even political gossip blogs like Wonkette, all of which involve third parties gossiping and reporting about people or events. If the users of JuicyCampus stopped posting salacious gossip on the site, that gossip simply would not exist.
The "problem," then, is the unfettered expression of students that the site makes possible. Critics of the site say that it invites students to libel one another through lies and rumor-mongering. While the website certainly does make this possible, so do countless other Internet forums that allow either pseudonymous or completely anonymous posts. (Anonymous blog comments are even more common.) The reason that JuicyCampus has caught on as a forum for anonymous campus gossip while other sites have not (at least to the same degree—a forum system for Duke students that carried gossip along with other messages was in existence even while I was at school there in 1997) appears solely to be due to effective marketing and the apparent desire of students to have a place to go online where they can gossip anonymously. JuicyCampus did not create the problem of gossip—a problem so old that it is referred to multiple times in the Bible—but it has shined a light upon the kind of gossip that goes on in our society and on our campuses, and many people don’t like what they see.
Like it or not, gossiping is human nature. It’s the rare person who has not engaged in it at one time or another. And while there are few who are would publicly praise gossip (the millions of readers of gossip blogs and websites notwithstanding), the fact that some people intensely dislike a certain kind of expression or, in this case, a certain vehicle for that expression, provides no legal justification to ban it in the United States. To be clear: while gossip might offend or embarrass students, faculty, administrators, or other members of the campus community, gossip that is not libelous is protected expression under the First Amendment. Freedom of speech does not exist to protect only speech that is pleasant or that bothers no one. Such speech needs no protection. The First Amendment exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or "offensive." The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." And in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the Court wrote that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" By ignoring these precedents, Tennessee State—as a government actor—is inviting a lawsuit.
The remaining objection against JuicyCampus is that is provides a platform for libel, which can be generally defined as a false, published statement that damages someone’s reputation (published, in this case, simply means that it has been recorded in some medium and disseminated to others). The sheer number of posts on JuicyCampus means that some are virtually certain to be libelous. However, this concern does not justify blocking the site either.
First, blocking access to an entire website to avoid a probably relatively small number of truly libelous comments is almost certainly not sufficiently "narrowly tailored" to pass muster under the First Amendment. Second, if the presence of libelous information on a website is enough to warrant a ban on that website, major newspapers, which are frequently sued for libel and sometimes lose, would also be eligible for blocking under such a theory. Is Tennessee State really prepared to block The New York Times because it might serve as a platform for libel? Third, colleges and universities utterly lack the competence to determine what comments might be libelous. Libel cases can be extremely complicated and can be embarrassing for everyone involved, and university judicial processes are hardly sufficient to adjudicate such cases. Further, since truth is an absolute defense for libel in the United States, the accused libeler would have to be given the opportunity to prove the truth of his or her accusation, which, given the extremely private context of many JuicyCampus posts, would be unlikely to be to anyone’s benefit.
It is important to remember that those who have actually been the target of true threats or libel on JuicyCampus are not without recourse. They can have the police investigate threats or subpoena JuicyCampus’ records to try to identify a libeler. (FIRE’s Will Creeley made this very argument on this blog back in March—it is unfortunate that so many on campus apparently missed it.) As the site’s policy on Information Sharing and Disclosure says, "[w]e reserve the right to disclose your personally identifiable information and/or non-personally identifiable information as required by law and when we believe that disclosure is necessary to protect our rights and/or to comply with a judicial proceeding, court order, or legal process served on our Web site." It is true that suing someone for libel is much more expensive and onerous than simply demanding the university block access to a site or charging someone with an offense under the student judicial code. But there is good reason for this relatively high barrier; in a free society, it should be difficult to institute legal processes that will muzzle someone else, as our assumption should always be that speech should be more, not less, free.
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?" At some point, you begin to hear the unmistakable footsteps of Big Brother behind you—particularly when the government is funding the universities that are engaging in this kind of censorship.
(As an aside, I feel I should point out that attempts at American universities to block access to websites will most likely never be completely successful, as the nature of the Internet means that it is very difficult for any network to block every method of access to a specific website. Even in totalitarian countries like China, where every Internet connection must pass through firewalls that block websites at government order, people find ways to anonymously access forbidden websites, such as by using tools offered by the Tor Project or the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. Therefore, a university’s decision to block a website is not just wrong; it also displays ignorance about the nature of the Internet. Blocking a website will prevent most, but certainly not all, people from accessing the site.)
How, then, should academia handle this issue? The answer is simple, but difficult nonetheless: students, faculty, and administrators need to come to terms with the fact that the Internet is changing how people communicate. It functions to quickly and efficiently disseminate information, but takes away some of the ability for people to determine the source of that information and whether or not it is true. Wikipedia is Exhibit A in this situation: most professors either strictly limit or forbid students to use Wikipedia as a source for academic papers, and for good reason—nobody knows for sure whether information on Wikipedia is true or who might have posted it there. That same lesson needs to be applied to JuicyCampus. It is utterly foolish for people to believe unquestioningly what they read on JuicyCampus. (FIRE President Greg Lukianoff pointed this out in a Huffington Post column from March.) Those targeted can’t be blamed for being upset about it, but those reading need to realize that what is posted anonymously on the Internet can be far removed from the truth. Most entertainment is fiction, and JuicyCampus is probably no exception. At the same time, even for those who have been unfairly maligned on the site, there is a certain value in knowing what is being said behind one’s back. Social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and now JuicyCampus are rapidly shrinking the private sphere, nearly always with the consent of the users themselves. At some point we as a society will come to a new understanding of how relationships and communication will work in a connected world. JuicyCampus, and the way we respond to it, will help determine what this balance will be.