Gossip-site ban raises free-speech issues

Legal experts say the recent banning of a popular gossip web site at a public university could violate students’ First Amendment rights and meet stiff challenges in court, but campus officials stand by their decision.

Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville cut off access to JuicyCampus.com on the university’s servers Nov.12 after a student’s mother complained about the site’s content. The university is reported to be the first state-funded campus to ban the controversial site, which encourages college students to post anonymous comments detailing rumors and gossip heard across campus.

As scandalous innuendo has spread via JuicyCampus, student leaders from several colleges and universities–including Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.–have asked administrators to ban the site. (See "Students fight back against gossip site")

But as the first public institution to do so, TSU has set off a controversy surrounding freedom-of-speech issues on campus.

Michael A. Freeman, vice president for student affairs at TSU, said JuicyCampus did not meet the school’s educational mission. 

"This is not a First Amendment issue," Freeman said. "Tennessee State University’s network is a private forum for the express purposes of academic work and research. Because it is a private forum, the issue of free speech does not attach."

Freeman said university officials decided they did not have an obligation to keep JuicyCampus available through campus servers.

"To turn the argument around, we are not compelled to host a for-profit business on a public university’s private network," he said. "Our action really isn’t about the web site–it has a right to exist. Quite simply, the site doesn’t fit our educational purpose."

TSU officials pointed out JuicyCampus would still be available to students through iPhones or other technologies that don’t use the school’s network.

The gossip site has drawn the ire of state prosecutors in New Jersey and Connecticut, where officials say JuicyCampus might violate state consumer-fraud laws, because although it says it does not allow offensive material, it contains online conversation threads with invective sprinkled throughout–with no obvious mechanism for removing such content.

In March, New Jersey prosecutors subpoenaed records from JuicyCampus, and Connecticut’s attorney general launched an investigation into whether the site was violating state rules by containing "libelous, defamatory, and abusive postings. (See "Connecticut becomes second state to probe JuicyCampus")

Lawrence G. Walters, a Florida attorney who specializes in internet-based free speech issues, said a taxpayer-funded university would have a difficult time defending the banning of a web site if a student decided to sue. 

"[The university is] a government entity making a decision to block certain speech based on its content," he said. "I don’t know if there can be a clearer case of a potential violation of First Amendment rights. … That is not the role of government. The role of government is to foster debate–and to block information from students is antithetical to everything free speech stands for."

Walters said the courts often allow the curbing of First Amendment rights in a K-12 school if the speech "violates decency or morality at the school." But on a public university campus, "the ability to impinge on First Amendment rights is very limited, if not outright nonexistent," he said. "[TSU officials] are not the gatekeepers of information."

An opinion released by the university’s legal department cited a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law requiring public libraries to filter pornographic web sites from their networks in order to receive federal e-Rate funds. The American Library Association had challenged the law, saying it violated the First Amendment.

TSU’s legal opinion also noted that students are assessed an annual technology access fee that "pays for student technology needs" associated with academic work. JuicyCampus does not meet that requirement, according to the opinion.

Some legal experts said the 2003 case cited by TSU does not apply to the current scenario.

Adam Goldstein, a legal advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said the library court case would not apply to a public university.

"Even if the network isn’t a [public] forum, [the university] still can’t censor the site," Goldstein said, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision only paved the way for the government to require the blocking of pornography on school or library computers as a condition for receiving federal funding. "You don’t get to censor anything you feel like because you don’t like the speaker," he said.

Matt Ivester, CEO and president of the Los Angeles-based JuicyCampus, railed against the university’s decision in an open letter released Nov. 19. Ivester said TSU joined "the ranks of the Chinese government in internet censorship" and said the school was traveling down a "slippery slope."

"In a truly Orwellian manner, the university chose to limit students’ abilities to read and write to an unmoderated message board online, because their speech was reflecting ‘negatively’ on TSU," Ivester said in his letter. "Freeman’s position would seem to be that his students cannot be trusted with their First Amendment rights, perhaps believing they are too immature or irresponsible."



Student Press Law Center