Banned Gossip Site Raises Free Speech Concerns

Dec 4, 2008 7:00 AM PST
LOS ANGELES — In a move with First Amendment implications, Tennessee State University (TSU) has cut access to scholastic gossip website JuicyCampus.com from its Nashville campus network.

Reportedly the first state-funded campus to block access to the site — despite pressure on other institutions to do so — TSU took the action against JuicyCampus following a complaint which was reportedly lodged by a student's mother over the website's content.

The controversial website allows students to post anonymous comments which purport to reveal the latest campus rumors and gossip.

TSU is a public university and the administration's limiting of free expression is troubling to some observers, who warn that the school could face vigorous court challenges over its decision.

According to Florida-based First Amendment attorney Lawrence G. Walters, there would be a tough, uphill legal battle for a taxpayer-funded university to defend itself if a student decided to sue it for banning a website.

"[The university is] a government entity making a decision to block certain speech based on its content," Walters 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."

TSU Vice President for Student Affairs, Michael A. Freeman, disagrees with critics of the school's decision, saying that the content of the JuicyCampus website did not rise to the school's standards and that the decision is not impacted by any notions of free speech.

"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."

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

The gossip website has come under scrutiny from prosecutors in New Jersey and Connecticut over state consumer-fraud laws; reportedly stemming from the site's lack of a removal mechanism for offensive content — even though some visitors might find some material "offensive." The site claims to prohibit offensive material, but the state's are investigating "libelous, defamatory, and abusive postings."

According to Matt Ivester, CEO and president of JuicyCampus, the TSU action placed the school among "the ranks of the Chinese government in Internet censorship."

"In a truly Orwellian manner, the university chose to limit students' abilities to read and write to an un-moderated message board online, because their speech was reflecting 'negatively' on TSU," Ivester said. "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."

"This case may be precedent-setting for user-generated websites," Walters told XBIZ. "The government is using the comments posted by third parties as a basis on which to censor a website service."

"With all the other more explicit or offensive websites on the Internet, it is astonishing how the University can claim that this one, in particular, needs to be censored," Walters added.

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