Gossip Gone Wild


"Colleges are terrified,'' he said. "I have talked to a guy who teaches at one of the top Ivy League schools and has written on this topic and has said to me that administrators are terrified of doing anything, terrified of being accused of quelching speech."

But, he said, "they are just missing the point. They are not helping the issues here. These [college gossip sites] are going to have downstream consequences on their brand equity. Their students are going to have a harder time getting jobs, having careers."

Fertik, an advocate for aggressive pursuit of remedies to protect online reputations, argues that colleges and universities have a variety of options in dealing with sites like Juicycampus.

"They can simply shut access down to the site on university computers; they can track IP addresses of university students using school e-mails; and they can certainly make declarative, normative and moral judgments of 'what we do and what we do not do here,'" he said.

Coming in Through the Side Door

But for the broader public, combating reputation-damaging sites like Juicycampus can be time-consuming and inevitably futile.

Leslie Harris, a civil liberties attorney and president of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., read through Juicycampus.com's terms of service at ABC News' request and said she does not believe that the site even violates consumer fraud statutes.

"They're trying to sort of come in from a side door under a state law,'' she said of New Jersey prosecutors. "I don't think it's the easiest case in the world to make. They're using state law to overcome federal law that has given protection to the site."

"It may [have been] different if the site's terms of service said 'we will aggressively police the site.' But there's nothing in the law that would require any site -- if it says in its terms of service that 'we do not permit the following types of content' -- there's nothing in the law that says you are required to enforce that in any aggressive way," she said.

What's more, Harris said, consumer fraud laws are set up to protect consumers of, in this case, a Web site. But it's not the site's users and posters that are being hurt, she said. It's the people about whom comments are written.

"Under their theory of the case, the consumer is not the user using the site, it's another consumer,'' who may not be using the site at all, she said.

Wendy Seltzer of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society also questioned the viability of a civil prosecution under the state's Consumer Fraud Act.

"What they're trying to avoid is the Communications Decency Act, which gives service providers like the folks at JuicyCampus a broad immunity liability from anything their users want to say on their site," Seltzer said.

"Media literacy is a much better answer than the government trying to shut it down,'' she said. "Letting people know 'this is a just a bunch of anonymous people spreading hate here, why are you putting any trust in what they say? Why don't instead you look at these sites?'''

Shot Across the Bow

But the New Jersey State Attorney General's Office may be less concerned with a successful civil prosecution of the site's owners than it is about pressuring the site into more self-regulation.

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