Real People Stories

Campus Controversy Has Online Gossip Gone Too Far?

UPDATED 04/14/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/14/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

There it was—her name spelled out on a popular Web site, right beside the words "stalker" and "suicidal." Duke University freshman Mary Hannah Ellis recalls being home for Christmas when she read the list of untruths about her (that she is ugly, that she once attempted suicide) posted by anonymous users on the Web site JuicyCampus.com for everyone to see: her classmates, her professors, people from her home town. "I broke down and thought, 'Who could be so hateful?'" says Ellis, 18. She became so self-conscious, she says, that she missed classes for three weeks. "All this site is doing is humiliating and defaming people. It needs to be shut down."

Hers is an increasingly common view on the 62 college campuses where JuicyCampus operates, offering school gossips a chance to post whatever they want about classmates in complete anonymity. "We do not collect any information directly from you ... and we don't want it," the site advertises unapologetically, while offering this advice to would-be posters: "Keep it juicy." Some of the site's users have been only too happy to oblige: Sample postings identify undergraduates as promiscuous or HIV positive, or offer lists of male students "most likely to rape a girl."

Complaints from students and parents about the site, launched last year by 2005 Duke University graduate Matt Ivester, have sparked debate about blocking it on university servers. In February the state of New Jersey launched an investigation into whether JuicyCampus violates consumer-protection laws by failing to police users and enforce its parental-consent policy for users under 18. State attorney general Anne Milgram says the site has included lists of "biggest sluts on campus," complete with names and addresses. "I've heard of young women who get people knocking on their dorm room doors at 2 a.m.," Milgram says.

JuicyCampus' owners insist their online whisper gallery violates no laws and is not liable for any harm caused by users. According to the company-operated blog, "If you think Mary is a bitch, you are entitled to express that." Legal experts tend to agree: In 1996 Congress awarded Web service providers immunity from prosecution for libel committed by their users. "The sites escape accountability for what they publish and yet profit from it," says Daniel Solove, associate professor of law at George Washington University Law School.

JuicyCampus founder Ivester, who makes money off advertising on the site, seemed surprised when contacted by a PEOPLE reporter who found his number on a directory of Duke alumni. "They just post that on the Web site?" asked Ivester, who said JuicyCampus was meant to be entertaining. In a Feb. 29 open letter he exhorted users, "Remember that words can hurt and the people you are talking about are real."

Some students who have been the subjects of Juicy gossip are blasé. Best friends Jason Schechtman and James Feld, both 19 and freshmen at Indiana University, were ID'ed as gay lovers on Juicy. Both deny it. "Most likely just one of our friends was playing a joke on us," says Feld. Ohio State University sophomore Rich Patton, who was falsely accused of being HIV positive, countered with a post more outrageous: that he has bubonic plague.

But for Amanda Walden, a sophomore at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who was called out as "ugly" and "easy" on Juicy, the pain of online humiliation was compounded by the discovery of who had maligned her. After the parents of another student threatened to hire a detective to find the source of a series of nasty posts, a student at Baylor fessed up. Turns out it was one of Walden's closest friends. "That hurt me 10 times more," says Walden. "The Web site can do that—ruin friendships and reputations."

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