A Web site where scores of Southern California teenagers posted cruel rumors about their peers has been closed down, ending a painful demonstration of how the Internet can amplify the impact of free speech.
The site, www.school-rumors.com, was launched in December, but its popularity soared suddenly in the past few weeks. In the two weeks before its March 2 shutdown, it received more than 70,000 visits.
The company that hosted the site, Invite Internet Inc. of Denver, had received telephone and e-mail complaints, but shut the site down because of a disparity between its registration and billing addresses, the company’s executive director, Rainey Schuyler, said.
Mr. Schuyler would not disclose who began the site. He said that Invite Internet requires clients to abide by an “acceptable use” policy guiding site content, and that it was unclear whether the operator of schoolrumors.com had violated the policy.
“We don’t monitor each site’s content,” Mr. Schuyler said. “That gets into a very sketchy area. We’re not in the business of censorship.”
Most rumors concerned students at schools in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of Los Angeles. Visitors to the site could click on postings about a particular school to see what had been written about students there. As is common on the Web, those wishing to post could do so under fictitious names.
One girl, a junior at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., received numerous harassing phone calls after someone called her “a slut” and “a whore” and posted her name, address, and phone number, said Allan Weiner, the principal of the 2,700-student school.
Another student at the school, a senior from India, became suicidal after a posting detailed her alleged sexual skills. The girl told friends that she feared she would be ostracized in her community or expelled from the country if people heard about it, Mr. Weiner said.
Other postings on the site reportedly included racist and anti-gay statements. Mr. Weiner said he had asked the webmaster for the Los Angeles Unified School District to block access to the site from school computers.
“This is a new day and age,” he said. “We’re used to dealing with graffiti on the walls and bathroom doors, but this is so public. People can see it from anywhere. We’re doing everything we can to protect our kids, and we’re frustrated.”
More Cases Expected
Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to student journalists, predicted many more controversies over similar Web sites—of which he said there are thousands—but said legal actions to halt them would be hard to win.
“We forget we live in a society where people have the right to say hurtful things, and that doesn’t mean you have a right to stop them or sue them for it,” he said. “Students spreading rumors is an old story, but people are reacting more strongly now because it’s on the Internet.”
Because the Internet audience is potentially vast, online libel lawsuits offer the possibility of larger monetary awards, Mr. Goodman said.
More and more, legal cases are beginning to test the issue of free speech in the Internet age, and legal experts say the defining line can be whether the comments constitute a threat.
In Bethlehem, Pa., a student who had his own Web site was expelled after posting threatening comments about his mathematics teacher. A jury awarded the teacher $500,000 for invasion of privacy.
In Utah, a high school student was expelled after calling his principal “the town drunk,” referring to classmates as “sluts,” and speculating about faculty members’ homosexuality and drug use on his Web site.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Web Site That Fed On Student Rumors Shuts Down