University of Florida Student Body President, Kevin Riley, and Chief Information Officer, Marc Hoit, recently issued this letter to the Florida Attorney General asking that the Florida Office of the Attorney General launch an investigation into Juicy Campus, the well-known gossip site. They did not elaborate on what kind of investigation they expect the state to launch.
I agree that JuicyCampus.com contains terribly defamatory posts about many people. However, if you are gullible enough to believe anything you read on JuicyCampus.com, your opinion cannot be all that influential. I also think that asking the government to launch an investigation because a few thin-skinned people have had their feelings hurt is asking for a level of governmental paternalism that used to (in my day) piss college students off. Kids these days…
The letter reads:
“[JuicyCampus] is used to anonymously post gossip regarding students. The anonymity, and the guarantee that information about a user’s identity will not be tracked, provided by JuicyCampus emboldens users to post false and damaging statements about others. These posts often amount to cyberbullying and raise issues of public welfare and safety.” (source)
Mr. Riley and Mr. Hoit, in their zeal to go crying to the teacher, seem to have neglected to do their homework. JuicyCampus.com is protected from liability for the actions of its users by 47 U.S.C. § 230, which was passed in order to ensure that online businesses would not have to grind to a halt while they police their users’ actions. The phone company is under no obligation to make sure you don’t use your phone to set up a contract killing, a drug deal, or to make sure you don’t say nasty things about your co-workers. Similarly, internet service providers should receive the same laissez-faire treatement, lest censorship become the bastard child of technology. See Robert Corn-Revere, New Technology and the First Amendment: Breaking The Cycle of Repression, 17 Hastings Comm. & Ent. L.J. 247, 264 (1994). Naturally, the internet =/= phone lines. However, unless the website in question actually assists in the production of the offending material, it is not liable. See, e.g., Craigslist Wins Section 230 Case. The much-misunderstood Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com decision did not change that rule, but rather reinforced it. In that case, Roommates.com provided pull-down menus that guided users to create potentially discriminatory housing postings. Therefore, they lost their Section 230 immunity. Craigslist is, like JuicyCampus, free-form and fully protected.
Despite their claim that JuicyCampus raises issues of public welfare and safety, the signatories of this foolish missive appear to be clueless as to how JuicyCampus has cooperated with the authorities in the past.
In situations where Juicy Campus posts have crossed the boundary from nuisance or harassment to outright threat, the site has cooperated with authorities. In December, Carlos Huerta, a senior at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, posted a message on Juicy Campus alleging that he would start a shooting spree on campus. At the request of the police, Mr. Ivester traced the threat to Mr. Huerta, who was arrested and released without charges. (source)
I agree JuicyCampus most likely hurts a few people’s feelings. There may even be an anecdote or two that raises the complaints beyond mere alligator tears. However, the vast majority of the content on JuicyCampus is innocuous or just plain silly. It seems to me that the only purpose served by this letter was a desire to appear to care about a non-problem.
I have been to bathrooms at the University of Florida where I saw defamatory material written on the wall. No investigation was launched – at least not at the level of the state Attorney General – and nobody called for the building to be torn down. The logic of blaming the forum for the actions of the participants is as illogical as closing a public park because someone held up a defamatory sign.
Section 230 is an example of Congress getting an issue right — internet commerce must be allowed to grow, even if that growth causes a few stretch marks.
Kevin Grierson said:
I don’t think it’s the job of the law to limit the options of law-abiding citizens and businesses because of the potential harm to the Darwin-Award-winning segment of our society.
Similarly, it is not the job of the state to intervene in every example of hurt feelings – even if it is a widespread issue. The next time you take a flight, look at the immense hassle you have to go through. Flying in America is an experience that is a pain in the ass because we passed rules designed to affect the behavior of a few of the worst people in society. Then, we handed the rulebook to dumbest nitwits we could find. Do you really want the government passing rules and launching investigations that may wind up placing the same kind of restrictions on the greatest tool for mass communication ever invented? I sure don’t.
If a student feels aggrieved by the content on Juicy Campus, he or she has the right to file a private cause of action. If the speech rises to the level of a true threat, the police will get involved. Asking the government to launch an investigation into a public forum because of the actions of a minority of participants in that forum is an act of abject foolishness.
There are some areas where the government should never venture – including criminal investigations of activities involving free speech. Fortunately for us, I do not believe that Bill McCollum will take any action. Mr. McCollum, a die-hard Republican, has an excellent record when it comes to free speech issues. McCollum has tirelessly pursued child predators and human traffickers, but he has courageously resisted calls from social conservatives to investigate and prosecute mainstream pornography. McCollum understands the meaning of being a conservative, and is not likely to intervene in a situation that could be cured either through the marketplace of ideas or over-cured by government intervention.
I don’t mind Mr. Riley or Mr. Holt raising the alarm about Juicy Campus. They were well within their First Amendment rights to express their opinion, and to petition the government to take any steps they liked. They crossed the line by purporting to speak for the tens of thousands of students at the University of Florida. I called McCollum’s office, which confirmed that there has been exactly ONE complaint about Juicy Campus by University of Florida students — and that was launched by the student body president himself. Who were these two ass-hats speaking for but themselves?
I encourage Mr. Riley and Mr. Holt to do their homework before they try to start a government investigation into people saying naughty things about one another. I have always found the University of Florida to be a shockingly intellectually complacent institution (and yes, I am a Gator), but this is a new low. Had this been a less enlightened attorney general, their foolish letter very well could have caused real damage to free speech on the Internet.