Administration misused authority to shut down and forcibly change student-run ‘toga confessions’ page

October 17, 2019 — by Manasi Garg and Nitya Marimuthu

Confession #3578: Due to academic and social reasons, I will be passing away. I apologize for any inconveniences this may cause.” 

This was the post that caused administrators to ask moderators to take down the popular Facebook page “toga confessions” (formerly known as “shs confessions”) for two days on Sept. 30. In turn, students across campus wondered what had happened.

According to one of the page’s moderators, administrators told them to “cease and desist” the site — that is, to shut it down and not restart it. In an initial meeting, the moderators said the administration asked them not to publicly share the reason for the shut-down, basically ensuring that the administrators did not get blamed for any discontent among the student body.

In a later meeting, administrators allowed the moderators to restart the page under the condition that they removed the school’s falcon logo from the profile and renamed the page “shs confessions” to something that could not be directly associated with the school. Ultimately, the moderators settled on “togaconfessions.”

Despite their good intentions, the administration misused their authority to exert control over an off-campus, student-run page. 

Some of the administrators’ concerns may have arisen from the usage of the school’s logo as the profile picture and name made the page a liability to the school; however, the name neither “shs” nor “Saratoga” nor the Falcon logo can be trademarked, and nowhere on the page does the page claim to be officially sponsored or school-moderated. Rather, the name “shs confessions” was used as an indicator that the page had been created for and by students attending SHS. This naming of the page is consistent with the “confessions” pages of other high schools and universities. 

Administrations’ concerns could have been addressed with the simple addition of a statement in the bio saying the page is run by SHS students and is not affiliated with the school. In this context, issuing an effective cease-and-desist command was an extreme choice when simpler solutions were available. 

Online speech happening during personal time cannot be equated with in-class or on-campus speech. School officials do not interfere with what students say and do in their time outside of school — for example, in a coffee shop or a park — so there is no reason to try to control student speech just because it is digital. 

To address concerns that the page will be used as a vehicle for cyberbullying, moderators regulate which confessions are posted and do not release anything explicitly targeting a specific person. In any case, if such a post was published, it is not the school that is liable; rather, it is the moderators and anyone suspected to have submitted the original confession based on past actions who would be held accountable. 

Administrators also had concerns statements students were making on the page alluding to serious topics such as sexual assault and self-harm. Although these topics are worrisome, taking down the page does not confront these more deeper topics. While people may not get the professional help they require on the confessions page, they are at least able to reach out to others through the page. 

Additionally, there are few or no negative effects of anonymously sharing personal struggles or opinions. Such confessions about personal histories of violence or mental illness may provide a sense of catharsis for the student in the way a diary entry might. These posts also often receive an outpouring of support from students who provide advice and words of encouragement. 

It is understandable that administrators are concerned about posts regarding self-harm, violence, abuse or bullying. However, unless the confession explicitly states that an act of violence or something equally worrisome is happening or will happen on school grounds, it is not up to the school to directly interfere; rather, it is up to law enforcement. Even if school authorities attempted to intervene, confessions are anonymous, so there isn’t necessarily a way to trace who posted what.

The post that got the site taken down seemed to be intended as a joke. Compared to some of the other, deeper posts, this one reflected students’ tendencies to likely joke about wanting death (a problem that obviously reflects upon the deeper culture of the school rather than the site). Taking down the site did not help the person who posted this, nor did it suddenly remedy the school’s culture of unstable mental health.

What could have been an open conversation about the unintended consequences of the site, and why moderators should be careful, turned into a harsh, one-sided decision that did not take the students’ voices into account. 

If the administration felt concern over the effects of the site, they should have fostered an open dialogue with moderators in order to come to an agreement over how to better manage the page. While we agree that their concerns were reasonable, we do not feel their reaction helped the site to progress into one of more safety and consideration.

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