An attempt to make any sort of prediction about what happened in the big primaries last night would be utterly futile and laughable to you when you actually pick up your papers in a mad rush to grab the Sudoku before slinking low in your lecture-hall chair. Instead, I’d like to speak about the more general issue of anonymous speech, both online and off.
By now, the story of JuicyCampus is semi-old news, but it’s worth rehashing the basics: it’s a new intercampus gossip site in which anyone can post anonymously about anything and everything, and as you might expect, it’s filled with plenty of vitriol, hate speech, and accusations of this or that against any number of students. It distressed students enough for the Columbia College Student Council to discuss it this past Sunday. But these incidents have just found a new home online—if you’ll recall, we had several real-world incidents of hateful displays against students and professors last semester, including racist and anti-Semitic diatribes scrawled on bathroom walls.
Anonymous speech online has been in the broader news cycle for a lot of this year, with the suicide of a St. Louis girl last December after two other teenagers and a neighbor created a fictitious boy on MySpace to gained her trust, only to then mock her ruthlessly, along with the more recent death of an advertising executive after intense ridicule from an industry blog and its comments list. In the political sphere, the formerly-anonymous author of the vitriolic anti-Obama site hillaryis44.com was unmasked as a political activist named Alex Rodriguez (no relation to a certain third baseman).
The internet is a strange and terrible new frontier for the concept of “free speech.” Plenty of people who’d agree that scrawling a swastika on a bathroom door is inexcusable behavior would hardly flinch at a hateful pro-Nazi rant in a blog comment. Still others who’d easily trade the latest gossip with their friends would be horrified to see that same gossip appear online for all to see. Meetings and threats of legal action really don’t cut it when it comes to hateful or offensive speech directed at individuals or groups. If anything, it only encourages the people involved, as they clearly enjoy the afterglow of attention without any of the negative aftermath. It’s trite to say—and very hard if you’re a target of disparaging comments—but the first step to “dealing with this problem” is making a personal commitment not to enable it, no matter whose names or what tripe is scrawled.
Legally, enforcing the terms of service for an anonymous online “stall wall” is difficult at best, and with the burden of proof for libel being so high (though not as much for private figures), an accusation like “The Varsity Show spent half its budget on hookers and blow” would require a concrete refutation of the allegation—like receipts and itemized expense reports with cocaine and prostitutes conspicuously absent. Of course, juicycampus.com isn’t going to want to go to court over anything (the fees alone would sink it), so it’ll probably delete a comment if you threaten it enough. But the overarching issue of anonymous talk online remains, and all litigation does is draw more attention to it.
You can make the argument, as with television, that you shouldn’t be viewing things you find offensive. You give an offensive site business every time you surf over there, no matter how much you decry their message. You could certainly argue that Barack Obama doesn’t read the latest material put out by Alex Rodriguez accusing him of being involved, Whitewater-style, in “that suicide that washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan.” That’s cold comfort to people who are personally attacked on anonymous sites, though—they’re not asking to be pilloried in the public sphere, and it’s doubtful that anyone would say any of the things posted anonymously on some Web site to anyone’s face. While you could argue that such comments are the equivalent of gossip and that they’d happen anyway, it’s another thing altogether when they’re paired with disparaging comments or even outright hate speech. We certainly shouldn’t be turning the other cheek to it, but neither should we be legitimizing it.
You agree to abide by the University’s guidelines governing public speech when you sign your contract to come here, and such guidelines limit hateful and threatening speech or behavior. In that regard, yes, you are violating school policy if you are posting things of that nature to an anonymous Web site. Should Columbia University Information Technology monitor your Web traffic and turn you in for posting hateful material? It already hands you over if you get caught by the RIAA or MPAA downloading music or movies illegally. Again, where do you draw the line?
On a broader legal level, it’s difficult to make the argument that a hateful anonymous site should be cited or taken down because of the content created by its users, unless they’re explicitly advocating violence or crimes. At a university level, we have to ask ourselves if the speech codes we have set up should be strictly enforced. But change most effectively comes at a personal level. You can certainly wave your hand and dismiss the hateful things posted on anonymous Web sites or scribbled on bathroom walls as nothing you should worry about, but would you be so cavalier if it were you being accused of splurging on hookers and blow?
Chas Carey is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and American studies. What Where runs alternate Wednesdays. Opinion@columbiaspectator.com