SYRACUSE, N.Y., Oct. 3, 2008 -- Shannon Halligan checks JuicyCampus.com quite a lot -- but not because she's obsessed with gossip. She wants to make sure her name doesn't pop up when her classmates dish the dirt in online posts.
"That's what I'm scared of," Halligan, a junior at Syracuse University, said recently. "Some of the ones just say peoples' names and then they'll say, 'Discuss.' And then they'll just bash them."
She's in Delta Delta Delta, one of the many sororities at SU whose members said they have been targets on what is becoming one of the most popular -- and most controversial -- Web sites to hit U.S. colleges. Juicy Campus is a gossip Web site with the self-described mission "of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses."
But the results can seem like something less noble, with all-anonymous posts ranging from "Smelliest People on Campus" to "Worst Hookup." Since its launch about a year ago, the growing site has generated a mixed response, captivating gawkers with its brutally personal critiquing and repulsing others with its debatably truthful and mean-spirited sniping.
"I think that it's a lot of people who are extremely bored just trying to get a laugh," Justin Selle, a Syracuse University senior, said recently. "There's nothing too serious, although some of the stuff, being quite offensive, is actually pretty funny."
Students don't have to register or provide a name to post on JuicyCampus.com, although the site claims to prohibit offensive or abusive material. Tags like "STDs" or "party" make gossip tidbits more searchable. And users can add their own responses or vote on previously posted gossip.
The brainchild of Duke alum Matt Ivester, the site, by its own count, is used at more than 450 schools across the country, with more than 60,000 posts combined. The site instructs media organizations to submit questions for a response, but its managers have not responded to a list of questions from ABC News on Campus.
Students who belong to groups targeted on the site had plenty to say, however. Take SU senior Greg Morrison, a member of the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. When he found out his fraternity was the subject of several malicious and explicit posts on the site, he was shocked.
"It's just amazing that we're in college," he said. "We're about to go off into the, quote end-quote, real world and we're about to have families and make decisions that will seriously impact not only ourselves but the world around us ... and we're busy posting stuff on Web sites about fraternities?"
But there's little, if any, recourse for the offended.
Web sites are generally protected from liability by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was among Congress' early attempts to regulate pornography on the Internet. People who post the comments are generally guaranteed protections under the First Amendment, unless, for instance, they make false and defamatory allegations.
Not Just About Reputation
But the repercussions can go beyond reputations. A Colgate University student was arrested and charged early this year with second-degree aggravated harassment after he threatened a shooting as a prank on JuicyCampus.com, according to published reports.
Authorities can use Internet protocol addresses to track down people who post, although it may take a court order to do so.
Recognizing the site's legal advantages, New Jersey has taken a different tack, investigating JuicyCampus.com for possible violation of the state's Consumer Fraud Act. The allegation, as reported by ABCNews.com earlier this year, is that the site said it prohibits offensive and abusive material but fails to enforce the restrictions.
Juicy Campus' video blog, according to an ABC "20/20" story in May, questioned how the state can accuse a Web site of consumer fraud when it isn't a store, and the people on the site aren't buying anything.
Not Just About Reputation
Several student governments including those at Pepperdine, Princeton and the University of Florida have considered banning JuicyCampus.com, although, as ABCNews.com also reported, legal experts and advocates say the site has constitutional liberties on its side.
Back in Syracuse, rumors that it will be banned from campus Internet providers have been circulating all week. University officials declined a request to be interviewed by ABC News on Campus.
Whatever the outcome, some observers are bracing for more fallout.
Chris Burke, an attorney with Syracuse University Student Legal Services for 10 years, said he hasn't seen many students come in with Internet complaints, at least not yet.
"Within the past five years I'd say it's grown," he said. "Not as many as you would think because it's still new so people aren't quite sure how to respond. But if there's this now anonymous Web site where people can post these anonymous things and say any silly, foul or spiteful thing they want against people, well, I suspect I'm going to be seeing more of it more often."
It's Not a Good Idea
Either way, whether you're on the giving or receiving end, leaving too much information online is usually a bad idea, he said.
"If your mother wouldn't want you to do it, then don't do it, you know?" Burke said. "You're surrendering this privacy that's a concept that people of my age have a difficulty grasping -- how willing young people are to just forsake this privacy. You put that stuff on there, it's going to stay forever so you better be darn careful of what's on there and how you want to handle it after."
Syracuse students Halligan and Morrison hope students eventually get bored with the site, although the site's apparent growth suggests otherwise.
"I just think that people need to relax, look at themselves in the mirror, and realize how incredibly stupid they are [for using the site]," Morrison said. "Come on, we're adults."