Gossip Web site raises jitters, legal questions

WASHINGTON — The Georgetown University students had some questions for gossip Web site founder and chief executive Matt Ivester. Such as, "Why can't you prevent people's reputations from being smeared on your site? Why don't you take down the racist comments? Do you know some students are so distraught about the things said about them that they might drop out of school?"

And, "How do you sleep at night?"

It was the first time that Ivester had taken questions from students anywhere about JuicyCampus.com, the fast-growing gossip Web site he created that is igniting controversies on campuses across the country. It encourages people to post gossip anonymously. And so they do, naming names and spreading detailed rumors about sex, drugs and college life. Well, mostly about sex.

It's not unlike the bathroom wall at a dive bar, except that anyone, anywhere, can read it. And it never gets erased or painted over.

A moderator started the Georgetown session by reading a question that many of the students had asked: Is stuff on this site going to keep me from getting a job? Because even if the site's users and readers know to take it all with a grain of salt, employers might not be amused.

Ivester told the students that a Google search would not dig up JuicyCampus posts; the site is coded to block search engines, he said.

But with many students considering jobs that would require intensive background checks, the moderator said, couldn't this, in fact, jeopardize some people's chances?

"I think they're going to have to start developing a sense of humor," Ivester said. "It's not going to work if they start taking unsubstantiated, ridiculous gossip as the truth."

Ah, but that's the trouble. It might not be the truth, and it might be only gossip, but once it's posted, it's out there for all who wish to look at it. And lots of people are looking. The year-old site is bubbling away on 500 campuses and prompting talk of lawsuits, investigations by two state attorneys general, hate groups on the social networking site Facebook and votes by several student governments to ban it from campus. Twice, police have swooped in to investigate students who threatened mass shootings online.

It's an example, several lawyers specializing in new media said, of the way technology is changing far more swiftly than the law.

And it's the latest sign of the rapidly eroding privacy of a generation that, through social networks such as Facebook and media such as videos and cellphone cameras, is tearing down walls that its parents and grandparents had always thought were solid.

"The fact is," Ivester told his audience, "the Internet is changing privacy as we know it."

Anyone can post on JuicyCampus. Comments run the gamut, from funny to inscrutable to offensive to pathetic to the wildly unprintable.

Ivester, who was the president of his fraternity at Duke University and graduated in 2005, said that when he launched the site, he hoped it would be an unfiltered forum for college kids to talk about whatever they wanted and share funny stories and crazy high jinks.

What surprised him, he said, was the turn that it took to something that can be ugly, offensive and mean-spirited. But that doesn't mean he's changing anything about JuicyCampus.

He will remove posts to the Web site only if there is hate speech, spam or private contact information such as a phone number.

Several legal scholars said, there's not much that anyone can do to stop the gossip on JuicyCampus.

The emerging consensus interpretation of federal law gives far greater weight to protecting free speech than to protecting privacy for individuals, said Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School. The law provides a very strong immunity to a Web site that asks users to contribute information, he said.

"I think sites like JuicyCampus that solicit this information shouldn't get a free pass to gossip," because it creates invasions of privacy and the potential to smear someone's reputation, Solove said. "But it's very difficult, under current law, to do a whole lot" to prevent that.

Still, authorities are trying. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in an interview Wednesday that his office is investigating JuicyCampus for possible consumer deception, fraud or misleading statements. "They said in their terms of service that they would not tolerate harassing, threatening messages, when in fact they certainly are doing so," Blumenthal said. In June, the company changed those terms, he said, to say they reserve the right not to enforce them. "They've abdicated any responsibility for defamatory or hateful racist or anti-religious posts," he said.

Ivester said he couldn't comment on an ongoing investigation other than to say he is more confident than ever that the site is not in violation of any laws.

Many hope the site will just die off naturally, when students stop using it. Its revenue is based on selling ads, and advertisers are looking to reach the most people they can. According to ComScore, the site had 47,000 unique visitors in September.

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