Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Juicy Libel?

I learned something today. I have no idea whether or not it's true, but the word is out. I learned that a number of women on college campuses across America are sluts, whores, and a few other nouns that I choose not to repeat. Further, I discovered their names, what university they attended, and what sorority they pledged.

The story of JuicyCampus.com is no longer new, but it takes a while for contemporary cultural phenomena to reach my desk these days. I am aware of MySpace and Facebook, of course, but I have only visited one of them a couple of times. I don't remember which one; I have an account there because my students once set up a page for me and I wanted to check it out. Ever since then, I occasionally get requests from people I may or may not know asking me to be their friend. I leave these queries unanswered, which may be a major breach of etiquette and will probably earn me a label as aloof or thoughtless, but I really don't care. It is, I've learned over the years, best not to party with one's students, even if only in the virtual world.

One of the pleasures of growing older is that you recover your ability to be shocked. During childhood, everything is shocking, from the first time your hear someone curse in public to the first time you see a picture of a naked person (and yes, I do realize that these events may take place sooner in life now than they once did). As adolescence kicks in, the senses are overloaded and a certain jadedness sets in. By the time you reach thirty, you've seen and done everything, you've mastered the shady and sleazy precincts of popular culture, and you laugh at your elders who constantly decry the declining standards that allow the likes of Beavis and Butt-head to enter their living room (as the man once said, I date myself, but at least I always send flowers the next day).

At some point in the blur of the fourth decade, you wake up one morning to find that popular culture has passed you by and you discover that Billy Ray Cyrus is not only still alive, but he now has a famous daughter with a rhyming stage name. Contemporary music hits start to sound indistinguishable. You begin to wonder when all the jokes on "Saturday Night Live" became so damned childish.

And then somewhere, maybe around the age of forty, you suddenly regain your ability to be shocked. Maybe it was "South Park", or perhaps "Family Guy". Or possibly the obscene lyrics emitting from the future hearing aid wearer stopped at the light next to you. Regardless, eventually you hit that first moment when, usually involuntarily, you hear yourself ask, "Can they really say that?" Recalling that your parents once asked the same question about Archie Bunker and the Sex Pistols, your day is now ruined.

Eventually, you get over your repulsion at what you've become and make peace with your alienation from popular culture. We had Jello Biafra, they have Fifty Cent; I can deal with that. Still, once in a while something comes along that offends you so much that you consider writing your Congressman, except that you don't remember his (or is it her?) name.

The discovery of JuicyCampus.com was such a moment for me, though, to be honest, I might well have objected to this site even if I were still seventeen. After only a few minutes on the site, I learned that a certain young woman in a certain sorority at some campus in the United States was "the nastiest most pathetic whore on the face of the earth". Her first and last names were mentioned explicitly, along with the assertion that "[s]he's a stinky ugly [ethnic group]."

Armed with the name, the sorority, and the campus affiliation, I went to Google and discovered that this young woman does, in fact, exist. (I am only giving you this much because Juicy Campus does not allow its content to be indexed by search engines.) She no doubt has, in addition to feelings, friends, parents, siblings, and other people who love her. And here I am, in another part of the country, able to read some anonymous coward's vile and bigoted words about her intimate sexuality.

The First Amendment protects a lot of things, but we generally assume that it does not protect slander and libel. In a technical sense, I suppose, we are probably not expected to believe that the coed in question actually performs sexual acts for pay, though that is obviously the dictionary definition of "whore". Nevertheless, at the very least, we are led to think that she is carnally promiscuous, which is itself, if untrue, a potentially libelous statement. She's not the only one, of course; the word "slut" shows up with alarming frequency in the various descriptions of women posted on the site.

I could have given you even better examples, except that they would be more specifically identifying, and I have no interest in furthering anyone's humiliation. But there are explicit descriptions of sexual acts some of these women supposedly perform as well as diseases that they carry and pass on. If true, then the twisted individuals who post these allegations would be, for better or worse, legally protected. If not, they could quite possibly be sued successfully in a court of law.

Except that the jackasses who post these vile remarks do so anonymously. And the owner(s) of the website are evidently shielded by a law that holds internet proprietors blameless for libelous remarks made by visitors leaving comments. As a blogger with a comment section, I can certainly see the wisdom of this law. As we speak, someone could be leaving a note on my site saying that President Bush bites the heads off live birds and spits them out on Iraq War veterans. If I found such a falsehood, I would remove it quickly, but sometimes I go two or three days without checking my comments (since I usually don’t get too many). It's reassuring to know I'm not responsible for the vicious acts of others.

But Juicy Campus is different. The whole purpose of the site is to invite people to spread rumors and nasty gossip about their fellow students, and to do so anonymously. It is unclear to me why anyone who actively solicits these salacious tidbits shouldn't be held legally accountable if the words in question turn out to be false and defamatory. And if a law needs to be passed to make that happen, then let's get on with it.

I'm ready to take action. All I need is to figure out my congressman's (congresswoman's) name.

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