Confidentiality or censorship? Cav Daily slapped with conduct charges
When the members of the managing board of the Cavalier Daily discovered they had a plagiarist on staff, they turned the offending writer over to the Honor Committee– and published an editorial informing readers.
Now that same board of student journalists finds itself hauled up before the University Judiciary Committee for allegedly violating the confidentiality of the pending Honor case. It's the first time the 121-year-old student newspaper has faced such charges in a case that pits two of the university's most cherished Jeffersonian ideals: its Honor Code and a free press.
"I was shocked," says Cavalier Daily editor Jason Ally. "That's what my entire staff felt."
The editorial was published Monday, September 12, after what Ally describes as a marathon weekend during which the managing board had wrestled with the thorny issue of coming clean on the plagiarism within the framework of UVA's vaunted Honor Code and its mandate of confidentiality. They decided not to provide readers with the name, gender, or even the section of the paper for which the alleged word thief wrote.
Still, Honor Committee chair Ann Marie McKenzie contended that the editorial violated the University’s Standards of Conduct, and she filed charges with the University Judiciary Committee, a.k.a. UJC, which handles non-Honor student infractions. (The Honor Committee sticks with lying, cheating, and stealing.)
The Standards prohibit “intentional, reckless, or negligent conduct which obstructs the operations of the Honor or Judiciary Committee, or conduct that violates their rules of confidentality," the CD reports.
In a brief reportedly filed with the Judiciary Committee, the Cavalier Daily argues that the UJC is forbidden in its constitution from "jurisdiction over the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups.”
On September 22, the University Judiciary Committee held a hearing to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the student newspaper, and decided that it did. That same day, the Cavalier Daily published a news story and an editorial about the charges. Both were unsigned out of fear that additional staff members could be charged.
Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Arlington-based Student Press Law Center, calls the incident a textbook example of censorship.
"Punishing students for publishing an editorial?" asks Goldstein. "I think it's laughable that a university entity has the authority to punish truthful information."
Goldstein asserts that the paper had a journalistic obligation to disclose the plagiarism allegations to its readers.
"I think it does represent a little of student governance run amok," says editor Ally, a fourth-year foreign affairs major. "The Honor chair never should have filed charges. In her capacity as chair, she doesn't know the boundaries of what she can or cannot do, or what the UJC can do."
Even more alarming, says Ally, "The UJC did not realize this was outside its jurisdiction."
Honor chair McKenzie declined to comment on case specifics or how the Honor Code's confidentiality cloak might have been breached by an article that doesn't actually name the alleged plagiarizer. As for suggestions that she overreached, the fourth-year history and American studies major says, "Basically I don't respond to those comments."
McKenzie does, however, offer an opinion on free speech: "The First Amendment rights are not limitless," she says. "There are standards the courts have maintained, saying there are limits."
What would Jefferson do? While UVA's founder may have wavered when under attack, he expressed a pretty clear preference when he professed, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
The managing board– what some are already calling the Cav Daily 5– are scheduled to go on trial October 28. Meanwhile, on September 26, the newspaper risked further antagonization of the sanctions-seeking student government with a new editorial entitled, "This is what censorship looks like."
It was a blank page.
September 27 update: As this issue of the Hook is going to press, the Cavalier Daily reports that Honor chair McKenzie has dropped charges against four of the Cav Daily 5, leaving editor-in-chief Jason Ally facing the Judiciary Committee alone.
"That was agreeable to get four of the people who did nothing wrong in the clear out of the five who did nothing wrong," says Ally.
In 1985, he says, the Judiciary Committee attempted to add control over student journalism to its bylaws, but ultimately the media exemption was maintained. "Clearly, I'm exempt and charges should be dropped," says Ally.