Playing by the rules

As its editor-in-chief goes to trial, The Cavalier Daily defends its handling of plagiarism incidents and a subsequent judicial controversy

Cavalier Daily Editor-in-Chief Jason Ally will go before the University Judiciary Committee tonight at 7 in a closed trial to face the charge that he violated the Honor Committee's confidentiality rules by participating in the writing of a Sept. 12 editorial, "Taking action," which addressed incidents of plagiarism at the paper. Honor Committee Chair Ann Marie McKenzie initially filed this charge against the five members of The Cavalier Daily managing board since each editorial represents the majority opinion of the board, but she subsequently dropped her case against all but the editor-in-chief. Regardless of her rationale for this decision or the outcome of tonight's case, however, the paper maintains that it handled the plagiarism incidents and the ensuing judicial dispute related to the Sept. 12 editorial in an entirely appropriate manner.

It was necessary for the managing board to publish the editorial about recently uncovered plagiarism incidents because the paper strives to remain accountable to readers for the accuracy and authenticity of the content that appears in its pages. By explaining its response to the plagiarism incidents, the managing board aimed to preserve the level of trust it has established with members of the University community and sought to offer reassurance that it was taking the infractions seriously. As part of its full accounting, the managing board included that it had reported the incidents to the Committee. In doing so, it omitted mention of the plagiarist's name, gender, staff position and class year, as well as the titles, dates and content of the plagiarized articles.

The managing board chose not to reveal any of this information so as to preserve the confidentiality of the student responsible for the plagiarism, even though Article V of the Committee's by-laws specifies that students forfeit their right to confidentiality by "making (or causing to be made) public disclosure of matters that would otherwise be held to be confidential." In this case, the student's decision to write plagiarized articles that were submitted with a byline for publication in a 10,000 circulation newspaper amounted to an action that caused to be made public personally identifiable information that generally would be confidential in honor proceedings.

The managing board also believes it was right to report the incidents to the Committee. Although there are flaws in the honor system, the managing board felt that the student responsible for the plagiarism should be held to the same standard as any other member of the University community. Therefore, it decided to bring its findings to the attention of the Committee so the body could perform the responsibilities delegated to it by students and the University administration.

In addition to its initial approach to addressing the plagiarism incidents, the managing board defends the paper's coverage of the events stemming from McKenzie's filing of charges. Although the UJC's confidentiality rules generally prohibit the public discussion of cases involving alleged breaches of confidentiality in honor proceedings, the paper ascertained that it was exempt from the body's jurisdiction according to Article II, Section D, Clause 5 of its constitution. Upon this discovery, the paper was able to run an objective news story detailing the charges that McKenzie filed against the managing board. Several Cavalier Daily articles from 1985 dealing with proposed UJC constitutional amendments offered further clarification about the nature of the jurisdiction exemption in Art. II, Sec. D, Cl. 5, giving the paper the assurance that it could run additional news stories and editorials about the situation without the risk of drawing more UJC charges.

The paper's decision to publish content about the charges and the contentious issues surrounding them was made in accordance with its mission as an independent, student-run media organization. The Cavalier Daily strives to keep readers abreast of the most important news items at the University, and its editorials are meant to offer analysis so that students can make informed decisions about how to react to those issues.

The managing board hopes that today's editorial accomplishes that goal, and its members urge readers to take an interest in the policies and procedures of not only The Cavalier Daily, the Honor Committee and the UJC but also the myriad of other student-run groups that make decisions that affect the quality of life at the University. The system of student self-governance that has become mired in controversy in this instance depends upon student knowledge and input for its continued operation, and the managing board hopes that readers will look to the outcome of tonight's trial as an indication of what reforms may be needed in the future.


Published October 18, 2011 in Opinion





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Commentary

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Marvin Edwards
(10/18/11 1:22pm)
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I think the CD met the confidentiality requirement. But I don't agree that the student involved released the confidentiality requirement by the fact of publishing.

I'm guessing the only reason the Judiciary hearing is confidential is because it will reference the alleged student plagiarism.


Bob
(10/18/11 4:37pm)
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There is just no reasonable way you can argue that being a student newspaper exempts you from the confidentiality rules when the only reason you know the information is because you are the reporter of the case. What is to stop the Cav Daily from encouraging everyone to report honor cases they find to the Cav Daily, then let the Cav Daily report to the Honor Committee, and then have the Cav Daily report all the details of the case because of the unique view it gets as reporter of the case? The jurisdictional argument was just nonsense.

That being said, I think it is also very clear that confidentiality was NOT violated, and for that reason, I do hope Mr. Ally is acquitted.


Reed
(10/18/11 8:29pm)
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First off, this accused plagiarist did NOT forfeit his confidentiality. The alleged offense (publishing plagiarized material) occurred before the charges were made (obviously). Once the charges were levied then he is guaranteed confidentiality of his honor proceedings. The fact that the crime was public does not mean he, de facto, waives any rights to confidentiality that might come from punitive measures for that crime. For instance, if I get in a fight on the lawn and face UJC charges, even though the fight was seen by dozens of people, I stil have a right to confidentiality.

Obviously I've been interested in this debate, and here are some conclusions I've come to based on discussions and my increased learnings of the proceedings:

1). The Cavalier Daily CAN publish the confidential names of those pending honor charges, so long as the writers of the article did not obtain the identities by immoral methods (theft, hacking, etc.) or aren't directly involved in the Honor trial. I've said several times that "if the Cav Daily came upon a list of those on pending honor trial, they could not reasonably publish the names and expect no punishment." This is false. If they happened on a list, they could publish it. It might be tactless, but the writers and those involved did not agree to any confidentiality clause and they did not steal the list from the desk of the Honor Chair.

BUT If a writer on the Cavalier Daily is involved in the trial or files the claim, they sign a confidentiality clause, and thus cannot publish the identity of the accused. If a Writer A files an honor claim, and tells Writer B, who then writes an article divulging the identity, Writer B is not guilty, as he never made any promise to keep mum (he is, of course, a royal a-hole). Writer A IS guilty of breaching confidentiality. Writer A cannot tell anybody--verbally, in writing, or in a published newspaper--the identity of the accused.

2). The UJC has jurisdiction of confidentiality breaches. The clause keeping them from overseeing student publications is a 'freedom of speech' clause, not a freedom to break the rules, not a grant that they have more free speech than other students. In the above example, Writer A faces UJC charges. If Writer A had published the article himself, he would face UJC charges for the same thing: breaching confidentiality.

3). If you agree that the UJC has jurisdiction over all breaches of confidentiality, in print or verbally, then the presumed innocence of Jason Ally or other writers for the Cavalier Daily does not mean the case should never go to trial. The UJC cannot decide which cases should and should not go to trial; if it's in their jurisdiction then it goes to trial, whether they believe the accused innocent or not. The UJC has done everything according to protocol in this instance. The file was claimed and will go to trial where the panel will weigh the evidence and decide their outcome judiciously and rationally, like any other trial.

4). Innocence is not as clear as I thought it was. I've said throughout this that the writers of the CavDaily were innocent because they were not overt in naming the accused plagiarist. But a friend of mine took 15 minutes and discovered the identity of the accused (a 15 minutes I still don't care to take). Further, other members of the CavDaily probably knew this person had been let go for plagiarism, and when it got out that an honor case was being made, easily put two and two together. This probably occurred before the paper was being published, even if the author of the piece spoke to one person about what he was writing, or said there was an honor trial to one other editor, etc. All it takes is one breach, in print or out of print.

Having said THAT, I highly doubt they were shouting the accused's name to everyone on the CavDaily staff, and their intention has always been, I believe, journalistic integrity. And since intent is (if I remember correctly) a factor in these proceedings, this could be factored in.

5). The CavDaily has tried to straddle both sides in this debate: that it is an autonomous newspaper whose students, it seems they argue, need not adhere to certain standards that other students must but at the same time maintaining that their writer whom they found plagiarized could be brought up on Honor charges.


Marvin Edwards
(10/18/11 9:03pm)
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Reed,

The confidentiality rule is in the Standards of Conduct that apply to all students. It is not based on something signed at a trial. Only the accused can release anyone from the confidentiality requirement.

If your friend had to go through multiple steps to determine the accused's identity, then it is your friend who has compromised confidentiality, not the newspaper. The same applies to any student who goes through those same steps. (A similar situation would be the case if your friend were to bug the room during a trial. That too would involve multiple steps.)


Marguerite
(10/18/11 9:37pm)
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Even if there is jurisdiction, I don't think that just because someone was able to find out in 15 minutes who the accused student was proves a breach of confidentiality.

The rules state "personally identifiable information," which most people would interpret to mean gender, age, class year - something more than a general we discovered plagiarism, articles were removed and the person removed from staff. Even without any articles it was the corrective actions taken by Cav Daily that lead to the hunting down of the identity of the accused student. Due to the fact that Cav Daily is a publication, the second it took action by removing the student from staff and removing his/her articles, is the second people can start figuring something out. The Editorial Board made a collective decision to publish this editorial. They have a duty to let people know that they do not tolerate such actions.

But, most importantly, no personally identifiable information was released. If we let this one article constitutes personally identifiable information, then I think we run the risk of almost saying that by taking corrective action only and being such a public forum, the Cavalier Daily breached confidentiality because people could figure it out. Do we sequester people who witness the hypothetical lawn fight mentioned above and then post about it on Facebook? "Hey I saw Bob Smith beat up Sam Jones on the Lawn, probably going to be a UJC thing. Crazy times."

Or what about the "Public Summaries" section on the Honor Committee's page? http://www.virginia.edu/honor/PublicSummaries.html. How is that not a violation of the Honor Committee's own By-Laws? Section V says that the Honor Committee "aspires to maintain confidentiality throughout all of its proceedings." And, through practice from when I was student and also from the Honor Committee's "Public Summaries" that confidentiality is maintained after the trial has ended.

Solution: UJC should bring the entire Honor Committee up on charges for violating the rules of confidentiality because give me 15 minutes and I could probably figure out who the accused students were in their Public Summaries section.


Sean
(10/18/11 10:21pm)
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That Jonathan Perkins Honor Trial must be dragging on for months now, huh guys?? =o) Although I actually support Mr. Ally in this ridiculous Kangaroo Court Case, I think two things would actually bring Honor and Justice into that room tonight. Search and find the fake ID's among his accusers, and delete/silence/censor about half of what Jason says in defending himself.


Reed
(10/19/11 12:51am)
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Marvin,

The way I understand it is that if confidentiality is broken to you (that is, someone tells you about the honor trial) then you tell three people, you are not in trouble, only the first person who broke confidentiality is. If I am mistaken, then the Cav Daily has less rights than I thought, not more.

My friend used only information presented by the Cavalier Daily. Obviously using such surreptitious methods as bugging a room are illegal, but I'm not sure this would be.


Marvin Edwards
(10/19/11 2:43am)
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I have to disagree. The obligation of confidentiality falls upon all students. If someone tells you and you pass it on, then you are equally guilty of a breach of confidentiality. The obligation is not reduced by the fact that you work for the CD. Even if the UJC had no jurisdiction over the CD, directly exposing the accused would be a violation of the Standards of Conduct. But the evidence suggests that the CD took reasonable steps to protect the identity of the accused, and never directly exposed him or her. If someone was able to gather enough facts together to deduce the identity, then they have broken the spirit of confidentiality. If that same person spread it around, they would be guilty of a breach of the letter of the rule. But the CD is not responsible for that third person's detective measures.



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