College Gossip Crackdown: Chelsea Gorman Speaks Out

There it was, for the whole world to see, "Chelsea Gorman Deserved It," a topic posted on Vanderbilt University's JuicyCampus.com page.

Underneath that heading, someone had anonymously written, "what could she expect walking around there alone. everyone thinks she's so sweet but she got what she deserved. wish i had been the homeless guy that f***** her. [sic]"

It was a dagger to the heart of a young girl still recovering from the worst moment in her life. Her secret was so painful that only a few friends even knew about it, yet there it was tattooed on the Web for the world -- and almost worse, her entire campus -- to read, talk about, look into and spread.

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In the spring during her freshman year, Chelsea Gorman, a pretty and soft-spoken girl from Indiana, was walking back to campus after grabbing a cup of coffee around 9 p.m. on a fairly well-lit street in Nashville, Tenn.

Vanderbilt has warned its students that Nashville can be dangerous, but a quick walk to get a cup of coffee was something Gorman had done many times. Yet as she returned to campus, something unusual happened.

"A man came up and asked me for some money," she said. "I gave him the change that I had, and then he started screaming at me that that wasn't all that I had."

Suddenly the man turned violent. She says the rest is mostly a blur but in an instant her life was shattered.

"He grabbed me, and I don't remember very clearly what happened after that, but he raped me," Gorman said.

The man was never caught, and only a few of her closest friends and family knew it happened. Terrified and broken, Gorman left school for the rest of the semester and returned home to get counseling and come to terms with what happened to her.

"I became really afraid of Nashville in general. I lost a lot of faith in myself. I felt completely out of control," she said.

Blaming Herself, Returning to School

That loss of control haunted her, and in an attempt to gain control over the situation she began to come up with reasons as to why the rape was her fault.

"I went through what a lot of people went through with blaming myself, thinking if I had done something differently, if I had gone 15 minutes sooner, if I had let my friends walk with me, that I could have avoided this happening," she said. "I think in a way that was me trying to say I was in control of the situation."

Gorman was scared. But she returned to school in the fall after spending the summer making up the work she missed, determined to take back the control she lost that night.

"It was very difficult to go through the routine of going to classes, going to my different activities. I had a few panic attacks. I wouldn't go anywhere by myself after 5, and I sort of felt detached from the rest of my friends, even the ones who knew, because there were some of them that I still hadn't told about what happened," she said.

"I wasn't ready to tell anybody about it yet. My friends that knew respected my decision, and I needed to be OK with myself before I let anybody else know."

But a Web site designed to spew anonymous gossip under the guise of "entertainment," tearing apart campuses and eroding trust among students around the country, took that decision out of her hands.

Secret Revealed Online

In March, Gorman got a phone call from a friend at another college, telling her to go to JuicyCampus.com because someone had written about her rape on the site.

"For a while I didn't even want to go look, but then curiosity I guess, for lack of a better word, got ahold of me, and I went on and read what was posted, and I was absolutely disgusted," she said.

At first she was shocked that someone could be so ignorant as to blame a rape victim. Then she felt betrayed, knowing it must have been someone close to her because so few people knew. She said it felt almost like a second rape -- a total loss of control over her situation, just as the wounds were starting to heal.

The post started to spread, and soon the whole campus seemed to know about the girl who'd been raped, and the posting on Juicy Campus.

"That was probably the hardest part -- that people would come up and ask me about the post. In one case I came up to a group of people that I heard talking about the post, and they had forgotten whose name it was, but they were talking about the post that they had read on Juicy Campus, about somebody who had been raped," she said.

"It takes the control away again," said Chelsea. "It's my story to tell, and no one else has the right to tell it. And that something like this was considered gossip is disgusting."

Anonymous Hatred

Since Juicy Campus launched this fall at a smattering of campuses around the country, the Web site has given students an anonymous forum to say anything they want about anyone else, true or not, with little to no overview.

Want to find out who does drugs? Who's gay? Who has STDs? What about the most promiscuous girls? The prettiest? You can find all of this information and much more on JuicyCampus.com.

Names and sometimes phone numbers and addresses are posted on the site, which has now spread to about 60 schools around the country. It was an instant hit, jumping from a few thousand to more than 250,000 page views in a matter of months. Students across the country couldn't get enough of what was being written, and many were constantly checking to make sure their names didn't appear.

"People can say things about someone they don't know and there's nobody out there to stop them," said Rachel Wilkerson, a student at Michigan State University. "A lot of things I read on there are calling girls fat, or saying girls are sluts. Those are horrible things to say about women, and any Web site that promotes it and any person who would say those things, I just feel like is incredibly sexist and it just plays on girl's insecurities, and I thought we left that behind after high school graduation."

Dan Belzer, a graduating senior at Duke University, said, "This Web site is just about getting the worst things as possible on there just so that people can't help but look. Like a car accident, like a car accident Web site. No one would admit to reading Juicy Campus, but you knew everyone was reading it."

Duke was one of the first schools where the site launched in the fall, which is fitting because Matt Ivester, the founder of JuicyCampus.com, is a 2005 Duke graduate.

After graduating from college and working for awhile in New York, Ivester said he wanted to create a Web site about "all the ridiculous things we did and the hilarious stories."

Yet for many, what's posted on Juicy Campus is far from hilarious, because anyone from anywhere in the world can log on and say whatever they want.

Getting 'Outed' on the Web

Ryan Sparrow, a senior at Duke who is openly gay, was upset to hear about gay students being outed on the site.

"'Coming out' is a decision that is very personal and something that each individual has to decide. To have that decided for you, I mean, I can't even imagine what that would be like," Sparrow said.

Although Sparrow has never experienced hostility in person on campus, he says the anonymity of the site brings it out.

"People feel a social responsibility in person. On campus they don't feel behind the anonymity of a computer screen, and that's a problem we have to fix," he said.

Even worse, says Sparrow, Ivester was an out gay student at Duke.

"A past Duke student, an out, gay male, president of a fraternity," Sparrow said of Ivester. "The guy had the world in the palm of his hand and this is what he came up with, and that's really depressing to me."

The Duke administration contacted Ivester, asking him to take down certain posts and better monitor what was being said.

Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs at Duke, said he asked a staff member who knew Ivester to see whether "there was some willingness to mitigate some of the extreme comments. The response I got back pretty quickly was that was not something he was willing to do."

Moneta said if he ever ran into Ivester he'd ask, "What are you thinking?"

'They Cannot Live Their Lives'

The site implores its users to post "juicy" items, and even explains how to avoid defamation on an accompanying video blog page.

JuicyCampus.com assures users over and over again that they will remain anonymous and that Ivester is immune to being held accountable.

Legally, Ivester can do whatever he wants with the site, short of allowing school threats.

"The communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that the Web site owner is fully immune from liability from anything, for anything that is posted there by a third party," said Michael Fertik, founder of Reputation Defender, a company dedicated to helping people clear their names on the Web.

Since Juicy Campus was launched, his company has been contacted by a dozen students and parents asking for his help in getting comments taken off the site.

Juicy Campus, however, rarely removes anything, and there is little Fertik can do.

"We've heard from people who feel that they cannot live their lives, feel that they cannot go to class," Fertik said. "I am aware of a student who has taken time off from school."

Mary Hannah Ellis, also a Duke student, was devastated after reading untrue postings saying that she stalks people, that she has tried to commit suicide and that she is bipolar. She left school for three weeks.

"I felt I was not being accepted here at school and maybe there was something wrong with me that I couldn't change. That maybe I shouldn't be here," said Ellis, who eventually returned to Duke and is determined to not let the site get to her again.

Fertik said, "There's a strong sort of theological idea that slander is worse than death, because it's death over and over for the rest of your life, right?"

Striking Back

Short of asking Ivester to take down posts, there's little Fertik and the thousands of other students maligned on Juicy Campus can do. That's why Anne Millgram, the attorney general of New Jersey, has taken a stand.

"We believe that they're engaged in unconscionable business practices and deceptive business practices, and we would seek to stop them from doing that in the state," said Millgram.

Millgram was contacted several months ago by a parent of a student who was the subject of a negative posting on Juicy Campus.

Millgram said she realized that trying to take on the site over free speech was an uphill battle, so instead she went at it from a business point of view, investigating the site for consumer fraud.

"The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act prohibits unconscionable business practices, it prohibits deceptive business practices and what we found when we looked at the Web site is that the Web site was essentially saying here are its terms and conditions -- you couldn't post abusive content, you couldn't post unlawful content, you couldn't post things that were obscene or violated other people's privacy," Millgram said. "But then that's exactly what was happening, and the Web site was doing nothing about it."

Critics of Millgram's investigation, including Juicy Campus' own video blog, question how she can accuse a Web site of consumer fraud when it isn't a store, and the people on the site aren't buying anything.

"You know, every business has got to act with good faith, fair dealing, and provide honest services, period. Doesn't matter whether it's on the Internet or a place around the corner from where you live," Millgram said, adding that even without the site having advertisements, people simply going to the site are considered consumers of that Web site's business.

Although still in the early stages, Millgram is pleased to see other states jumping in and investigating Juicy Campus. Since her investigation was launched, the site's two main advertisers, Google and AdBrite, pulled their ads, taking almost $25,000 a month in ad revenue away from JuicyCampus.com.

Students Take Control

Ivester and Juicy Campus refused to speak to ABC News for this story, but students around the country are speaking out and taking a stand of their own. And it may be the students who have the most power to stop a site like Juicy Campus.

At Duke the sentiment from most students was the site has lost its steam and is now discounted because so much of what's written is untrue.

Pepperdine University's student government tried to have the site banned from the school's computers, and several Facebook groups with thousands of student members from around the country have sprung up against the site, imploring students to simply stop logging on.

Last month at Princeton students wore shirts saying "Anonymity = Cowardice." They also signed positive statements about other students, projecting them on a screen for the entire campus to see in a campaign to regain harmony called "Own What You Think," led by sophomore class president Connor Diemand-Yauman.

"Princeton should be an example that we can change things, that we don't have to sit down and just hope that it will go away," Diemand-Yauman said. "I don't think we truly understand how empowering it can be to read something positive."

As for Gorman, new wounds torn open by JuicyCampus.com are once again healing, and she is finding strength in the decision to share her story.

"It doesn't take any of the pain or the fear away per se, but it definitely helps with the transition from victim to survivor. And that's something that I'm working towards," she said. "This is my way of taking the control back and telling my story, instead of having someone tell it for me."

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