Alumni Claim Censorship on Facebook

Content Warning: This article contains brief mention of sexual assault.

Administrators of the “Oberlin Alumni Digital Community” Facebook group removed five alumni from the group last week for “abusive language” following the establishment of new community guidelines ratified Sept. 12.

“When the Alumni Association took over the Digital Community group last week, a number of alumni, myself included, began criticizing the move,” Robert Hayes, a former Oberlin student, said in an email to the Review.

Hayes is the creator of an alternative to the Facebook group, the “Uncensored Unofficial Oberlin Alumni Discussion Group,” and was one of five members banned the day the new guidelines were established.

A new page on the Oberlin College website is available detailing the new guidelines implemented by the Alumni Leadership Council, which are prefaced with, “This group is heavily monitored for adherence to a set of community guidelines adopted by the Oberlin Alumni Leadership Council in September 2018.”

Banned members cited the sixth guideline, “posts or comments that personally attack or demean a member of the community will be deleted without warning,” as the justification used by group administrators for the removals. Members like Rica Mendes, OC ’96, believe that the comments made were not severe enough to warrant removal.

“[The removal of members] was hardly necessary. Conversation gets heated — after all, it is online,” Mendes said. “But my suspicion is that [the removal] had 100% to do with optics, and the Office of Alumni Relations doesn’t know, nor has it ever known, how to address alumni concerns well.”

Group member Eileen Kay, OC ‘79, was not ejected but lost her position as group moderator. According to Kay, she received notice of her removal shortly after she asked for clarification on the group’s moderator page about the sudden removal of members without preliminary warning. Group administrator and Associate Director of Development and Alumni Relations Marissa Evans cites a different reason for Kay’s demotion.

“[Kay] was removed as part of the rollout,” Evans said. “Part of [the removal] was as a volunteer she wasn’t actively engaging with the group. We’ve had conversations about what to do with the group for quite some time, and so, because she wasn’t actively engaged in it, I didn’t think that she was capable of taking on what was expected of her as a moderator.”

According to Hayes, he and other banned members were told that warnings would precede comments being deleted or members being removed. However, he reports that neither he nor former members Paul Wilczynski, and Ashley Roberts, OC ’10, received warning before their removal.

“I think the that the way they handled the matter of deleting posts overall and with me personally, however, was tone deaf, antagonistic, rude, and just wrong,” Roberts said. Roberts was removed after asking whether the new guidelines had anything to do with previous comments she made that had been deleted.

In April 2018, Roberts shared a post made by an alleged victim of sexual assault to the Digital Community group. Roberts claims the post was deleted from the group even though it did not violate the guidelines then in place. According to Roberts, Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations and Annual Giving M. Danielle Young contacted her via Facebook messenger after the incident.

“The message was basically legal threats and demands,” Roberts said. Roberts shared a screenshot of the conversation with the Facebook group, which was promptly deleted. Shortly after, her ability to post was suspended for one week.

Enter the Uncensored Unofficial Oberlin Alumni Discussion Group, created by Hayes in response to Robert’s suspension from the original Digital Community group. The uncensored group is currently public and open to all who have a connection to Oberlin, and participation has climbed rapidly — the group currently has 1,152 members.

While many of the same administrators and moderators had been supervizing the Digital Community group for some time, it wasn’t until last week that they tightened their grip on content guidelines.

“At the time that I was hired and became an admin [of the Facebook group], it was understood that we were really hands-off with the moderation,” Evans said. “I think that with the activity of the group, we thought it was best to just leave it alone, and then we rolled out moderators in, I want to say, June 2016.” According to Evans, some alumni requested stricter regulations in the group.

Not all members of the official group oppose the tighter guidelines. Volunteer moderators like Carter Sligh, OC ’13, believe that the removal of members was in the best interest of the community.

“From what I know of the removal of those alums from the group, they were not decisions lightly taken, Sligh said. “We don’t remove folks for just anything, especially not just for disagreeing with us. I know I was personally harassed, I know my colleagues were, and I know that folks blatantly and repeatedly flouted rules not only of the Oberlin online community, but also basic internet etiquette.”

Members who are removed can request to rejoin the Facebook group in 90 days. To former members like Thomas Silverboerg, OC ’77, however, being removed was enough to encourage them to join the uncensored group instead.

“I joined the [uncensored] group because I believe censorship is tantamount to fascism and is a flagrant constitutional violation,” Silverboerg said. “I believe it would behoove the College to take their alums seriously, especially if they want cash on the barrel to continue operating at a high level.”

Evans, on the other hand, argues that concerns about censorship among individuals who were removed from the Digital Community Facebook group are hypocritical.

“They can cry until they’re blue in the face about censorship, but here’s the thing: in not allowing other people to have a voice — not allowing them to have an opinion — you are, in a sense, censoring people,” Evans said.

Ultimately, Hayes hopes his Facebook group will provide a haven for transparency.

“It is my hope that the unofficial group we are building, where governance is transparent and open discussions are encouraged, will become a place for those necessary conversations as well as a place for all of us to share our memories of our days at Oberlin,” he said.