As usual on Fairfax Underground, the post elicited profane insults, irrelevant tangents and not much new information. At first. But others joined the discussion, throwing out the rumors they’d heard at school and the names of students allegedly arrested for making videos of themselves having drunken sex with several girls. And then a television news reporter found the thread and went to the Fairfax County police, which confirmed that three sophomore boys had been charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.
Suddenly, the West Springfield High School’s sex tape scandal was all over TV, the radio talk shows, Twitter and Facebook, and it became the topic of discussion between countless appalled parents and their cellphone-wielding teens, all courtesy of Fairfax Underground.
While online forums are ubiquitous on the Web, they are usually topic based — places where people discuss bowling or beauty products or bondage. What makes Fairfax Underground unusual, experts say, is its geographical focus. It covers any topic, from the best place for laser surgery to Annandale back in the day to “outlandish” public school salaries to texting while driving on Interstate 66, as long as it is about Fairfax County.
In December, someone obtained and then posted on Fairfax Underground a 2,100-page document with the final class grades for thousands of Fairfax High School students. Fairfax County Public Schools quickly obtained a federal injunction ordering the document taken down.
The publishing of juveniles’ names troubles parents and those in the legal system who are accustomed to giving some protection to teenagers. And it troubles Cary Wiedemann, the 28-year-old founder of Fairfax Underground, who closely monitors and sometimes edits the postings on the site but does his best to keep what he happily describes as a “cesspool” as wild and free as possible.
In the West Springfield case, he said, the arrests were “a public event, in view of everybody, and everybody has the right to discuss it.”
“If anything’s being discussed anywhere on the streets, it’s fair game for Fairfax Underground.”
To be clear, there’s no legal question here. It is illegal for Virginia authorities to disclose the names of juveniles in court or school cases, but it is not illegal for a news outlet, blog or online forum to publish them. Most mainstream media have policies of not naming juveniles, although they occasionally suspend them, as was done with 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo after his arrest in the D.C. sniper shootings.
And Congress was quite explicit, as far back as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, that online hosts are not responsible for the content of posts from outside parties and may moderate or delete content without taking on legal liability.