Why Juicycampus.com, Rottenneighbor.com, and gossip sites could be a good thing for free speech

Recently I got a call from a reporter at the local ABC affiliate in San Diego to interview for a story about juicycampus.com. The questions hinted that the story the reporter was looking for was one of how awful and hurtful some of the anonymous posts on the site are for students. I spent 30 minutes telling the reporter what I thought, particularly how similar, at least from a free speech perspective, gossip sites like juicycampus.com are to more widely accepted sites, such as wikipedia, craigslist, and wikilinks, which also allow anonymous posting, editing, or comments.

The resulting story was a disappointment, noticeably lacking any mention of free speech. While this was not unexpected, I figured I'd share my thoughts, and a bit of dismay for the old media, here in the new media world. It is true that sites like juicycampus and rottenneighbor receive protection from liability for defamation and other claims under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (excluding some claims like IP).

The ABC report suggested that these gossip sites are harmful and deserve to be held liable for defamation by third parties that appears on their websites. While section 230 may not have been crafted to protect juicycampus.com, it has been a critical piece law protecting all websites from liability for defamation by third parties. The protection allows sites to serve as open, public forums for communication. It wasn't that long ago that craigslist only had 12 employees, yet received over 1,000,000 posts a day. The growth of sites like craigslist could be stifled if liability were too broad.

As far as anonymity, it is still true that if an individual posts defamation on any of these websites, they are liable, and, with some effort, posters can often be discovered. That said, sites like wikileaks and wikipedia have proven the value of anonymous contribution. Wikileaks and other sites serve as whistleblower forums, providing a place where concerned employees and citizens can go to tell their story without fear of retribution from corporations or governments. Certainly the need for such sites couldn't be greater felt than in the developing world, where being allowed to speak anonymously without retribution is often the only possibility for the truth. Wikileaks is known for the influence some posts on its site had on the recent Kenyan elections.

Perhaps stating that the needs of citizens in developing nation dictatorships outweigh the harm from learning who the fattest, sluttiest, or jockiest person in school is an oversimplification. But it really is a balancing act.

In the end, people who post defamation are still guilty of defamation, albeit a bit hard to track down. For those under 18, schools and parents can encourage policies and codes of conduct that restrict and students use of gossip and even social networking sites.

The sites themselves, however, should be given protection and allowed to flourish as bastions of open and free communication. Some will be loved by many, ie wikipedia, craigslist. Others may be disliked by large numbers of people, such as gossip sites, racist sites, political minority sites, etc. The question is, can one really exist without the other?

Hearing stories of college students requesting public forum websites be banned from access on their campus, as apparently happened at Pepperdine University with juicycampus.com, makes me recoil in horror.

Any thought of curbing immunity for public forum websites deserves a well reasoned and cautious approach.

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