So here's what free speech has come to on campus: "Name the freshman sluts!" an anonymous post demands on the Indiana University page of a multischool gossip site. So-and-so "has herpes!" proclaims an unsigned post on Texas Christian University's page. Among the profundities on the University of Alabama page: "Frats = fags."
Horny guys, lowbrow debates and run-of-the-mill spam all seem to be in abundant supply on CollegeACB.com (the acronym stands for Anonymous Confession Board). But what sets this site and others like it apart from the coarse commentary found on YouTube or, for that matter, a political blog are the personal attacks against private citizens, often with last names included, that leave victims with little recourse aside from demanding that the anonymous comments be taken down.
What used to be whispered on campuses is now broadcast, in the most cowardly way, for anyone with an Internet connection to see. Beverly Low, dean of first-year students at Colgate University, describes the phenomenon as an "electronic bathroom wall." The posts which are often suffused with racism, sexism and homophobia can be so vicious and juvenile that Ben Lieber, dean of students at Amherst College, likens them to "the worst of junior high."
And yet even the most élite universities are struggling with the problem of anonymous gossip sites. Some sites are homegrown and deal only with one school. Others are sprawling entities, catering to hundreds of schools and offering features like search capability and, at one enterprising site, the option to vote on how truthful an anonymous post is.
It may have worked. ACB logged a record 480,000 hits in one day in early November; a slow day brings half as much traffic, according to owner Peter Frank, a sophomore at Wesleyan University who runs ACB out of his dorm room. The 19-year-old English major defends the site as a "student-controlled discussion space where the communities dictate what's talked about." Though the site does not "call for salacious gossip," he says, on a busy day he receives 40 requests to take down posts and "on a bad day, just a couple."
He does not have moderators or police the site. But he follows up on complaints about individual posts. "If it says your name, we'll take it off," he says.
Hundreds of individuals and several schools have sent Frank requests to delete comments or even to remove a college from his site. For example, Washington and Lee University asked him in October to delete almost all threads about the school, but Frank refused. "I am not looking out for the school's best interests," he says. "I'm looking out for the students' best interests."