TENNESSEE– A popular, controversial Web site has been bannedfrom Tennessee State University servers in Nashville, Tenn., making it the firststate-funded university to impose a ban on the Web site.
The decision was made to ban JuicyCampus.com from the university’sservers after an upset student’s parent complained to Michael Freeman,vice president for student affairs, about an anonymous comment posted about herchild.
Freeman would not comment on the specifics of the anonymous comment exceptto say he felt there was a safety concern.
JuicyCampus is a Web site targeted towards college students who areencouraged to post anonymous comments with the latest gossip from theircampuses. There is no registration process and anyone can post an anonymouscomment.
Tennessee State University’s ban became public after Matt Ivester,CEO and president of JuicyCampus.com, sent an open letter to media outletsdecrying the decision by Freeman.
In the letter, Ivester derided Freeman’s decision as
“Orwellian” and “joining the ranks of the Chinese governmentin internet censorship.”
Freeman disagreed, saying the site is still accessible to students usingthird-party companies such as a Blackberry or an iPhone.
“The Chinese government blocking a site means no one can get to thatsite,” Freeman said. “Tennessee State University on a privatenetwork, blocking a site, where folks still have access to it, is a bit of adifference in blocking don’t you think?”
Freeman said he made the decision on Nov. 12 — the same day themother made the complaint. He said he did not consult legal professionals todetermine if banning the site would impose First Amendment violations.
“Well, I had my own sense that it would not,” Freeman said.”Having been in higher ed for a while, I’ve dealt with a number ofdifferent issues over the years.”
Freeman backed up his decision by providing a written legal opinion fromthe school’s Office of Chief of Staff and University Counsel stating thatthe university’s servers were not public forums.
The opinion also stated the ban did not violate the First Amendment for tworeasons. The first reason explained was that students have newer ways ofaccessing the Internet using their cell phones and through other wirelessnetwork providers.
“They don’t need our network,” the written opinionstated. “There may have been a time when students did not have access tothe Internet outside of computers, but those days are long gone.”
The second reason was that the university is funded through stateappropriated funds and student enrollment fees set out in the school’spolicies.
“The University can limit the use for which this resource is providedbecause, legally, our computer network is not a public forum as, according tothe U.S. Supreme Court, a public entity’s provision of internet accessdoes not create a public forum,” TSU’s legal opinion stated.
The school’s legal department went on to say that a 2003 UnitedStates Supreme Court decision, United States v. American LibraryAssociation, protected the school from any First Amendment liability.
Adam Goldstein, legal advocate for the Student Press Law Center, disagreedsaying the case referenced was a federal funding-related lawsuit that would notapply to colleges.
“Even if the network isn’t a forum, they still can’tcensor the site,” Goldstein said. “You don’t get to censoranything you feel like because you don’t like the speaker.”
But TSU’s legal opinion stated that the use of Internet filteringsoftware to block certain Web sites would not violate anyone’s FirstAmendment rights, according to that same lawsuit.
Goldstein explained that U.S. v. American Library Association diddiscuss the use of Internet filtering software as a way to prevent minors fromaccessing pictures that were pornographic or deemed harmful. But, under thatsame lawsuit adults at libraries would still be able to request the filter betaken off for things minors were not able to access.
“The ALA case states nothing more than that the federal governmentcan require attempts to block pornography on computers accessible to minors as acondition of getting federal funding,” Goldstein said. “It doesn’tsay that a college can filter anything it wants anytime someonecomplains.”
Freeman also backed his decision by saying there was a Tennessee Board ofRegents policy that directed the school’s network be set up solely foreducational and research purposes. He said he looked at the site and determinedthe site did not apply to the policy.
Ivester said students at TSU should be upset about the ban.
“They should be absolutely outraged,” he said. “I thinkit’s just completely incompatible with the ideals of higher education.Limiting information online is not something a school with a true academicmission would do.”
Freeman said what he did not like most about JuicyCampus was that the sitewas made up completely of anonymous comments. Ivester disputed that by sayingthe Supreme Court holds anonymous speech constitutionally protected.
“His (Freeman) inability to quell the concerns of an angry parent andexplain the free speech implications is really not an excuse,” Ivestersaid. “What he should have said is ‘if you have a problem with thesite, take it up with the site. (Tennessee State University) doesn’t haveanything to do with that.'”
Ivester also said he would support a lawsuit opposing the censorship anystudent at Tennessee State University would want to bring against theschool.
“And to the extent that students are looking for help with that, theyshould contact us at email@example.com,” he said. “And, we’lltry to connect them with the right resources, whether it’s lawyers or freespeech advocacy groups or whoever will be able to point them in the rightdirection.”
JuicyCampus.com currently gets about 150,000 visits a day and about onemillion unique visitors a month, according to Ivester.