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Online campus gossips won't show their faces

  • Story Highlights
  • College gossip site Juicy Campus allows anonymous posting
  • Some of the postings are gossipy, others are cruel
  • Opinions are protected under the law, lies are not
  • Legal action may be difficult unless site cooperates in identifying posters
  • Next Article in Crime »
By Sunny Hostin
CNN
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Sunny Hostin is American Morning's legal analyst.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Most people like gossip. Come on! You do too. Don't you glance every once in a while at US Weekly, In Touch, Page Six? And how about that Spitzer scandal -- even I can't get enough of that one.

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A freshman talks about how cruel postings on the Juicy Campus web site have tainted her college experience.

But what happens when the gossip is about you or your boyfriend or your kid? And what if it's there on the Internet, for the entire world to see on a Web site called Juicy Campus?

That's what happened to Jane Smith (her name has been changed to protect her privacy), a college freshman I spoke with recently. She said she learned from a friend that her name had been posted on the Web site and people were anonymously posting not so nice things about her.

Things like she was promiscuous, "ugly," "overrated," "racist." Things she says are not true. Her post has received over a thousand page views -- in non-techie speak, everyone is reading and writing about her. She even got a request for a "hook up" from a guy hundreds of miles away at another college.

She told me that when she read the posts, she felt like she had been kicked in the stomach. She called her parents in the middle of the night crying. She has lost weight, has trouble sleeping, and has become suspicious of those around her. She told me that it has ruined her freshman year -- and will likely taint her entire college experience. Video Watch how campus poison pens inflict pain »

So what is Juicy Campus and who is behind it? Juicy Campus is a Web site, founded on August 1, 2007, which claims to have "the simple mission of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses."

The site allows and encourages posters to anonymously post uncensored gossip and rumors -- the juicier the better -- about others. There is a separate section on the site for each college or university, over 60 campuses at last count.

Some recent posts discuss the breasts of a professor, sluttiest girls and sexiest guys on campus. Some posts even contain racist, sexist and anti-Semitic remarks. Juicy, huh?

It was founded by a Duke alum, a former frat house president who has gone to lengths to keep his identity secret. We tried to reach him for comment. He didn't return our calls or e-mails. Instead, we received this not-so-juicy statement from a publicist:

"While there has been much attention given to the critics ... Thousands of students from across the country have written in to request that their campus be added."

Come on! Why is he hiding? Jane can't even sue him. In fact, there is little she can do.

Juicy Campus and similar Web sites are protected under Communications Decency Act of 1996. The Act aims to shield Web publishers from liability for libelous comments posted by third parties. The section states "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

Juicy Campus is one of those sites that openly hides behind its immunity. The site's Frequently Asked Questions page states: "There is no way for someone using the site to find out who you are. And we at Juicy Campus are not keeping track of who you are or what you post. In fact, we prefer not to know who you are. We like to think that famous people like Justin Timberlake and Beyonce are using our site. We love them ..."

But what about those cowards, I mean posters, who like to call people names behind the wizard's curtain of protection provided by the Communications Decency Act? The First Amendment certainly protects free speech, even unpopular speech. Opinions are protected. The truth is protected. But lies are not.

To successfully sue the posters, Jane would have to show that they made false and defamatory statements about her (racist and slutty would qualify, I think) published them to a third party (I read them) and that her reputation was damaged (check).

In fact, most jurisdictions also recognize "per se" defamation, where the allegations are presumed to cause damage to the plaintiff, such as attacks on a person's professional character or standing; allegations that an unmarried person is unchaste; a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease or has committed a crime of "moral turpitude."

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Should Jane sue the pants off the posters? How would she find them? When you file a civil lawsuit against even an anonymous individual, a judge can issue a subpoena. Juicy Campus says it will respond to any "lawful subpoena." A subpoena could reveal a poster's IP address.

But in the end, it really is sooooo high school. Actually, it's more grade school. So Juicy Campus posters, come out, come out wherever you are. Or Jane, file a lawsuit and find them. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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