‘Confessions’ page sparks controversy

by Hannah Beausang

03_13_13_News_SDSUConfessions_PNThe “SDSU Confessions” Facebook page has received much attention in recent weeks, generating discussions on privacy and freedom of speech.

As a public forum, “SDSU Confessions” compiles anonymous submissions about college qualms, San Diego State culture and young adult insecurities intermingled with posts about drug use, alcohol consumption and sex.

There is no way for the posts to be removed without going through the administrator. Facebook does, however, let users report individual comments for harassment, providing another method/option for the eventual removal of comments.

SDSU’s Student Life and Leadership spoke out about the page, advocating its removal by arguing the “confessions” can potentially reflect negatively on both SDSU’s student body and the university’s overall reputation.

Assistant Student Life Adviser, Richard Eberheart said his organization received calls urging the removal of the page.

“There’s privacy and confidentially issues … Posts are potentially exposed to the whole world,”  Eberheart said. “It creates a negative stereotype and a negative stigma around our students. We definitely have a sense of school spirit on campus and we don’t want to tarnish it with things like this.”

One of Facebook’s founding principles is to “respect privacy,” an ideal “SDSU Confessions” can potentially violate.

In an online interview, the anonymous administrator of “SDSU Confessions” said the page is meant to create a place for students to voice unique viewpoints and ideas.

This type of unidentified posting allows for a sense of anonymity among users, empowering them to post things they may not be willing to admit otherwise. With this policy, there is potential for statements or confessions to emerge that could be detrimental to a person’s reputation.

The administrator said after receiving complaints from individuals affected negatively by posts, posting policies were adapted in an attempt to better protect privacy.

“We had a very hands-off, laissez-faire style of management where anything and everything was posted,” the administrator said. “People, quickly seeing that one person was being called out and called a slut, began to jump in and do the same thing to others … But we now censor the names to the point where it would be difficult for someone to find this person, unless they were highly nosy.”

The administrator said taking the page down would be a direct violation of freedom of speech.

“The very idea is anti-American,” the administrator said. “Any institution that doesn’t give me the right to speak my mind, especially when I pay for it, is immoral.”

Jon Moffat of Cyber Education Consulting said the idea of the page is protected by free speech laws, but there are other aspects of the page that could pose a problem. Moffat said the confessions and comments may reflect negatively on students in future endeavors.

“The way the site’s set up now is public,” Moffat said. “Do you realize that employers can search your name and public comments? Just because the world doesn’t seem to know about your SDSU confession right now doesn’t necessarily mean that will last forever.”

Professor-in-residence at the University of San Diego School of Law Junichi Semitsu addressed the Facebook privacy.

Semitsu said that because “SDSU Confessions” is on Facebook and does not claim to be directly affiliated with the university, SDSU administrators will most likely face difficulty in trying to remove the page. Although the speech is related to SDSU, it could be taking place off campus, where the university has no jurisdiction.

The First Amendment does protect speech that is considered harsh, even if someone is voicing speech that may be unpopular.

An individual post must meet specific criteria in order to be considered an actual defamatory claim. If a public post directly identifies or depicts an individual and falsely describes them, legality issues can arise. To have a legal case, an Internet Protocol address that could directly trace the original poster—not the administrator—would have to be obtained. This would not likely result in an overall removal of the site, but a direct suit against the poster, if their identity was revealed.

“There is a counter-balancing First Amendment interest at stake,” Semitsu said. “The Supreme Court has said that anonymous speech is protected speech.”

Semitsu said that in past cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that the best solution to fighting bad speech is to counter with good speech rather than resorting to censorship.

“I’m hoping that if there are specific posts that have really angered the campus, the campus ultimately could respond in a way that creates a culture not contributing to this website and hopefully it will go away on its own,” Semitsu said.