Undefined attacks: Gossip sites prompt 'bullying' crackdown

If you did a Google search for the name “Thaddeus Grage” you would find the Indiana University at Bloomington sophomore’s name associated with some unsavory allegations on the anonymous gossip Web site JuicyCampus.com.Grage says what is posted on the Web site could possibly hurt his chances with future employers, especially if the site becomes as popular as social-networking sites like Facebook or MySpace.”You really don’t care until you’re the victim, until you are publicly humiliated,” Grage said. “As long as someone wasn’t saying anything about me, I didn’t go on (JuicyCampus.com), and I didn’t really care.”But Grage says he was a target of a female former student who wanted a relationship with him. Grage said she was the one who anonymously posted his name and labeled him a “disgusting lying sleaze ball” who “sends naked pictures of himself” and “has unprotected sex.”He first learned of the post from his neighbor’s girlfriend from another Indiana-based college. Grage did not know who posted the comment in March 2008, but he had an idea it was his former classmate. He cut ties with her before his name was posted on JuicyCampus.Grage said the former classmate confirmed she wrote the post after trying to apologize to him two weeks before her college graduation. When contacted, the former classmate declined to discuss the matter except to that the “original posting as far as I know, is in fact true” and that “I wouldn’t care if anyone posted about me because I’m not insecure enough to really care what some anonymous person has to say about me.”For the first week the rumor was on the Web site, Grage said it only slightly bothered him, and he tried to laugh it off with friends who poked fun. But then more students started posting replies on the original rumor, making it more popular among Indiana University students visiting the site for the latest gossip.”For someone to be able to publicly humiliate somebody and not tell who it is and for people to be OK with that, I think is ridiculous,” Grage said.Grage said he understands the likelihood of the posting being taken down is “slim to none” but wishes the college was able to come up with in-house policies protecting students from defamation on sites like JuicyCampus.That suggestion is not so far from reality.Legal ramificationsIn August 2008, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram sent a two-page letter to New Jersey college presidents explaining that Milgram’s office was launching an investigation into JuicyCampus to “protect residents of the State.” Milgram wrote that with increased access to social-networking Web sites with “personal information regarding students … posted on the Internet using these forums, increased harassment has occurred.”Milgram then asked the presidents to check school polices and to “incorporate the topic of cyber-harassment, which includes stalking, bullying, and/or sexual exploitation, into your school’s code of conduct, with consequences for those who engage in these activities.”David Wald, spokesperson for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, confirmed the letter was sent to all the state’s colleges and universities, including private institutions.He said personal information like college students’ dorm room addresses and phone numbers was part of the reason Milgram wrote the letter to college and university presidents.”That’s part of it and of course things that are malicious and just wrong,” Wald said. “Those are the things we worry about when people abuse the Internet.”New Jersey is believed to be the first state to seriously contemplate disciplining college-aged adults partaking in cyberbulling. Most enforcement efforts have focused on the elementary, middle and high school levels.Mark Goodman, Kent State University Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that while policies like this are becoming popular among administrators in elementary and high schools, this was the first time in his decades advocating for students’ First Amendment rights that he has seen this type of recommendation at the college or university level.”It fails to recognize that we’re talking about adults here,” Goodman said. “Admittedly, some may be young adults, but on many campuses some are 21 and older. The idea that the state attorney general, let alone the college administration, should play the role of nanny for these adults is just ludicrous.”Goodman said college students writing off-campus speech on Facebook or MySpace as well as independent college publications could be punished, if a policy like this is approved.”A mainstream student newspaper or a more traditional college student publication probably won’t have a lot of problems,” Goodman said. “But what I would be more concerned about is the more alternative publication; especially those that are Web-based that may publish harsh criticism of other students.”Goodman advised public colleges or universities in New Jersey and elsewhere who feel they are being put in a situation to reprimand students for cyberbullying to make sure they talk to attorneys who understand how the courts have applied the First Amendment on college campuses. He said colleges could oppose this type of request from the state attorney general on constitutional grounds.”What I see this letter and press release doing is not even just inviting, but almost demanding that college and university officials intervene when unpleasant expression occurs online,” Goodman said. “It is setting up these schools for First Amendment lawsuits by people they attempt to punish or censor.”He also recommended to students who are punished or censored for protected speech at the university or college levels to make sure they take action against those institutions for violating their First Amendment rights.”The students can take them to court, and I hope they will,” Goodman said. “But what I believe is that colleges will be smart enough to get advice from lawyers about what legally they can do before they take any actions.”Ethical concernsAnthony Fargo, an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism, specializes in media law and media ethics. He addressed Grage’s conflict with his media law class after reading about it in the local newspaper. He said two-thirds of his class knew what JuicyCampus was. Fargo said courts across the country have been split on defamation cases like Grage’s.”The problems this highlights is kind of a growing problem that there are conditions that exist with the Internet that don’t exist with other publishing groups,” Fargo said. “Mainly, you can be anonymous on the Web, and there is law that protects them.”Fargo said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gives exemptions to Internet service providers, which includes sites like JuicyCampus.He said that if someone were to take a case like Grage’s to court, the facts would be highly sympathetic on the side of the complainant, but the law would favor the Web site operator.Fargo says that if the owner of JuicyCampus does not create content on the Web site and is just a “common carrier,” then the owner is not liable. He compared the relationship of a common carrier to the phone company — a person can make an illegal phone call but the phone company is not responsible for the call.Fargo said he understands the concern that some people who are topics on JuicyCampus may have, but said on the flip side of things, the Internet is really the only medium that is still free, open to the public and not government-regulated.”I can’t speak for the world, but I get the sense there are mixed feelings about this,” he said. “Everyone can picture themselves having 3,000 e-mail messages saying, ‘I just read you’re a lying sleaze ball on the Net’ and having the feeling you can’t do anything about it.”A group of First Amendment advocates including the SPLC, the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a letter to the New Jersey attorney general in November 2008 raising caution flags about a blanket prohibition on “bullying.” In the letter, the groups acknowledge that threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment but warn that prohibiting harmless speech under the undefined legal term “bullying” could cause constitutional problems.”An open-ended directive that colleges enact codes of conduct that punish the use of computers for ‘bullying’ will invariably cause some administrators to penalize lawful speech that falls within the protection of the First Amendment,” the groups wrote. “There is a difference — qualitatively, and constitutionally — between speech that threatens versus that which merely causes hurt feelings.”Goodman agreed and said “bullying” is not illegal as long as it does not reach legal harassment or libel.”‘Bullying’ doesn’t have a legal definition is what it boils down to,” Goodman said. “What they are trying to do is use amorphous, undefined terms as a legitimate justification for restricting constitutionally protected speech.”He also said students on college campuses in New Jersey who have a MySpace page, blog, or any other form of communication on the Internet should be worried.”Those who are most likely to fall victim to this request are the Web-based publishers of information critical of others,” he said. “For example, any student who on a Facebook page says something mean about another student could find themselves in a situation if university officials take this seriously, that suddenly they’re threatened with punishment as a result of that.”JuicyCampus controversiesMatt Ivester, JuicyCampus CEO and president, does not do many public interviews, and initially turned down a phone interview, agreeing only to answer e-mailed questions. Ivester said in the e-mail exchange that he started the site he labels “the ultimate gossip platform” over a year ago.When asked about harm to the future employment of people like Grage who are attacked by posts on the site, Ivester said he cannot say whether any given post is defamatory and only courts can determine that.”We encourage everyone to take what they read with a large grain of salt,” Ivester wrote. “And we don’t think that a responsible employer will make decisions based on unsubstantiated anonymous gossip.”Ivester would not comment on the investigation being led by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, only to say he felt confident his company was operating within the law.In November, Ivester accepted a phone interview to address his outrage with Tennessee State University’s decision to ban the Web site from being accessed through its Internet network. The decision to ban JuicyCampus.com from the university’s servers came after an upset student’s parent complained to Michael Freeman, vice president for student affairs, about an anonymous comment posted about her child.Ivester said he would support any student at Tennessee State if they wanted to sue the school for First Amendment violations.”His [Freeman’s] inability to quell the concerns of an angry parent and explain the free speech implications is really not an excuse,” Ivester said.He said many people are reacting too emotionally to the less appealing anonymous comments that are posted on JuicyCampus and that the U.S. Constitution protects those comments. He said the issue of banter on the Internet needs to be addressed sooner or later by students.”Ever since Facebook, people can comment on other people’s profiles. They post pictures of themselves drunk with their friends,” Ivester said. “This is an issue that this generation is going to need to really deal with.”In the meantime, Ivester said JuicyCampus is doing well in numbers. The site gets about 150,000 hits a day and nearly one million unique visitors come to JuicyCampus every month.