Gossip Sites Cross a Line

The internet is good at shame. There are countless Web sites where people can post nasty rants about ex-lovers and rude customers or, worse, push fragile teens over the edge, as in the recent case of a Missouri girl driven to suicide by online bullying. Now a new site aimed at college students is raising questions about the legality of online rumor mills. JuicyCampus.com is a rapidly growing gossip site that solicits content with the promise of anonymity. But what began as fun and games—and now has spinoffs on seven college campuses, including Duke University, where it began—has turned ugly and, in many cases, flatly defamatory. The posts have devolved from innocuous tales of secret crushes to racist tirades and lurid finger-pointing about drug use and sex, often with the alleged culprit identified by first and last name. In one post, a nameless Loyola Marymount University student asks why so many African-Americans and Latinos are enrolled at the school: "I thought the high tuition was supposed to keep the undesirables OUT?" It's gotten to the point, says Dan Belzer, a Duke senior who has written about the site for his school's newspaper, where "anyone with a grudge can maliciously attack defenseless students."

And get away with it, too. JuicyCampus—whose Duke-graduate founder, Matt Ivestor, declined to comment for this story—isn't sponsored by the schools it covers, so administrators can't regulate it. Neither does the law. Such sites are protected by a federal law that immunizes Web hosts from liability for the musings of their users—as long as the hosts themselves don't modify content. (And firmly establishing the identity of an individual poster would be next to impossible.) The rationale is to protect big companies like AOL from the actions of each and every user. But as a consequence, it means victims of a damaged rep have little legal recourse. "Courts tend to have antiquated understandings of privacy," says Daniel Solove, an expert in cyberlaw and the author of "The Future of Reputation." "Until that changes, we're going to see this keep happening." At present, there's only one sure way to rein in a site like JuicyCampus: persuade everyone to stop using it. But you don't need a college degree to figure out that won't happen.