Site for scurrilous innuendo causes pain on US campuses

Universities struggle to halt gossip that humiliates students and academics alike, writes John Gill

March 27, 2008

A gossip website that encourages students to humiliate both their lecturers and their peers is causing controversy on campuses across the US. urges users to "give us the juice" by contributing to such topics as "Sluttiest girl at Cornell (University in New York State)" and "Easiest teacher at DePaul (University in Chicago)".

Its message boards are packed with malicious gossip about named individuals. Most common are posts that brand female students "sluts" or accuse other named students of taking drugs.

Other posts on the website, which boasts that all its posts are "always anonymous", are homophobic or racist. Academics, although targeted less frequently than students, are also smeared.

One user brands a named member of teaching staff the "worst professor at Duke (University in North Carolina)" and says that he "loves getting violated by bananas" and is "sketchy as hell".

Subsequent posts allege that he behaves inappropriately with female students, and that his wife, another named professor, is so "dumb" that she "couldn't teach high school".

Another post brands a member of teaching staff an "evil bitch" and a third a "raving lunatic".

Several other threads ask for the names of "Professors who bang students", and a significant number make serious allegations about unnamed staff in specific faculties.

The website, which was launched last August, has been heavily criticised by universities and colleges in the US, where it has been described as "social networking gone bad".

Students have been reported as saying that they fear that their future job prospects might be harmed by allegations posted on the site, while others say the accusations have had a serious impact on their social lives.

Although the site has gossip boards dedicated to 130 campuses across the country, it is not affiliated to any of them.

Institutions have struggled to respond successfully to complaints made about the site by their students and staff.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, student leaders at several universities have called for access to be blocked on campus.

At Pepperdine University in California, the student government passed a resolution demanding that the site be blocked.

Austin Maness, a member of the student government, said: "We felt that our community had been directly and intentionally attacked, and we hoped to make a symbolic, public statement that Pepperdine does not support this sort of harmful, libellous gossip."

However, Timothy Chester, the university's chief information officer, said that blocking access would be difficult and would raise questions about censorship. "Once you go down that road and get on this slippery path, how do you make decisions on what you block, when you block, or how you block?" he said.

Student bodies at other universities, including most recently Baylor University in Texas, have made similar requests. As yet, however, no college is known to have successfully blocked or banned access to the site.

The Chronicle reported that the website's creator, a graduate of Duke University, had been contacted by his alma mater. Laurence Moneta, the vice-president for student affairs at Duke, said: "We attempted to engage him in dialogue about the pain that some students were experiencing ... The message I got back was that he was not interested in moderating or influencing the nature of the conversation and was in some respects enjoying the notoriety."

Under US law, sites such as generally bear no responsibility for the content that their users post, said Daniel Solove, a professor of law at George Washington University in Washington DC.

However, Solove, the author of the book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, said he believed that sites that exist solely to propagate gossip should be held to a different standard.

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