By Donna St. George and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
A Web site that catered to anonymous slander and insults by and about teenagers -- and was especially popular in Montgomery County high schools -- was closed down yesterday by its Web hosting company.
The shutdown came several weeks after the Maryland attorney general's office began investigating the site, peoplesdirt.com, which has alarmed parents and school officials for months. It created a wave of concern in mid-May when a former student at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda posted a rambling threat to kill students and staff members. The teen was later arrested.
Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin hailed the demise of a site that "often caused despair for students."
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said his office approached advertisers and the Web hosting company, the Go Daddy Group, raising concerns about the nature of the site, which included racial rants, allegations of promiscuity about named high school girls, and scurrilous accusations against named teachers. Nearly all postings were anonymous.
"It was really serving as a slander board -- a slander, defamation Web site for high school students," Gansler said.
He said much of what was on the site was protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Although slander and defamation are not protected by law, the comments were posted anonymously, making it difficult to take action.
The site was closed down after Gansler's office made the case to the Web hosting company that the offensive material contained on the site violated the service agreement. The site included postings from other areas of the region and country, but the vast majority came from high schools in Montgomery.
"We felt that it was vile, offensive, hateful and a very poor use of the Internet's possibilities," said Sue Kanter, co-president of Whitman's PTSA. "What I think is unfortunate is, I don't think this is the last time a site like this will be created."
Gansler's office sent out at least 35 letters to advertisers that appeared on the site, and in a four-day period, all the site's ads were pulled, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office. Many companies did not know the nature of the site, having used an advertising firm to make placements, she said.
After May 26, the site continued without advertising. Go Daddy did not take down the site when it was first approached by Gansler's office May 22, but Gansler said the company called yesterday to say the site would be closed down because of its defamatory content.
The service agreement said Go Daddy could terminate service for sites whose content includes activities that "defame, embarrass, harm, abuse, threaten, slander or harass third parties," Gansler's office said.
The site's administrator, Alfredo Castillo, could not be reached.