Whether satire or sophomoric, "Confessions" feed out of ETSU's hands

Nathan Baker • Apr 21, 2014 at 10:18 PM

“I use towels at frat parties when they don’t have any toliet (sic) paper. Sorry bout (sic) it.”

While some defend online confession pages for the comedic value of posts like the above from the @ETSUconfessions Twitter feed, others say they’re the electronic age’s equivalent of a bathroom wall, full of false gossip and leaving an offensive odor.

The unsanctioned confessions page bears the logo and name of East Tennessee State University, and reads like the novelization of a teen coming-of-age comedy, with drunken exploits, unrequited love and a peppering of salty language.

Some of the anonymous posts, however, name real people in potentially reputation-ruining situations.

One Twitter user demanded the source of the information of one post and bemoaned his resulting relationship complications, after he was accused of “hooking up” with another girl while his girlfriend was away.

Still another student received a public apology from the Twitter feed’s owner, who remains anonymous and did not respond to messages seeking comment, after a student was repeatedly made the butt of several posts questioning his sexual orientation.

Jeff Howard, ETSU’s associate dean of students, said the public shaming is unfortunate, but there’s little the college can do about it unless the posts turn to physical threats.

“We really can’t do anything if it does not violate our code of conduct,” Howard said. “There are still issues of free speech in the electronic world. It would have to cross over into a violation of our code or of legal entities for the university to get involved.”

Online threats of violence against and harassment of students are taken very seriously by the university, he said, and investigated to the fullest extent possible.

If a student is found to be breaking ETSU’s code, he or she can be ordered to participate in community service or expelled. If the conduct violates a legal statute, the student will be reported to the proper authorities.

But public shaming, whether true or not, doesn’t cross those lines, Howard said.

There may be civil recourse for libelous posts, but the defamed person would have to know the feed’s administrator and the person who submitted the false information.

The ETSU confessions site, and others like it at universities and high schools the world over, circumvent social media sites’ general insistence on using posters’ identities by using a third-party site to submit the “confessions.”

In the case of @ETSUconfessions, posts are submitted through ask.fm, a site that allows text to be submitted to the Twitter feed’s owner. The administrator can then copy and paste the text directly into tweets without identifying information.

ETSU student Kristen Galloway said confessions sites can be funny if moderated correctly to keep out identifying information.

In the early days of the local Twitter site, she tweeted the feed to her followers and encouraged them to follow it, as well.

“I think that, as long as people don’t tweet people directly, I don’t see a problem with it,” she said Monday in an email. “Most likely, no one is ever going to know who the tweets are about. I do think that there is definitely a potential for bullying, because I have seen people put names in tweets and it’s really rude and mean. But the admin of the page should be responsible and respectful enough to not post those things as well.”

For more than a year, trending confessions sites have been thorns in the sides of universities and high schools.

Some have been successful in battling them legally, only to see a new one spring back up in its place. Others’ claims to have them shut down have been rejected as attempts to stifle protected speech.

ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said the Twitter account is currently using a trademarked logo, which is being investigated by the university.

If the account is found to be using the logo without permission, the university can report the unsanctioned use to Twitter, but the site would only have to find a new, non-trademarked avatar.

Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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