Trial and error
Fundamental flaws in the University Judiciary Committee were revealed through its handling of the recent case against The Cavalier Daily
The Cavalier Daily is relieved that Editor-in-Chief Jason Ally, the final member of the managing board who still faced charges stemming from a Sept. 12 editorial, "Taking action," was exonerated yesterday by the University Judiciary Committee. The UJC's decision hinged on the fact that the body felt it lacked jurisdiction in this particular case because of Article II, Section D, Clause 5 of its constitution, which exempts from its oversight "the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups."
Unfortunately, the circumstances of this ruling reveal there are larger problems with the UJC that must be addressed if it is to remain a legitimate part of the University's system of student self-governance. Because the UJC is a body that does not operate on precedent, the rulings of its trial panels are inherently impermanent and can be overridden by subsequent panels for any reason at any time. Therefore, deciding upon the matter of jurisdiction in a trial setting offers The Cavalier Daily and other student organizations little to no clarity about whether the UJC can exercise review of their "journalistic and editorial functions."
More fundamentally, the fact that UJC trial panels apparently are the final arbiters of the body's jurisdiction limits is an indication that changes to the body's constitution do not, in fact, have to be approved by student-wide referenda. Rather, jurisdiction boundaries and other constitutional provisions can be revised and reinterpreted by various trial panels that do not have to take past student body decisions into account.
In this case, the UJC trial panel came to a correct interpretation of the body's jurisdiction, but it never should have been the group to decide this matter. Article IV, Section B, Clause 3 of the UJC's bylaws states, "If the Chairperson feels that any case is not within the jurisdiction of the Committee... s/he shall recommend its dismissal to the Executive Committee, which can dismiss the case by a majority vote." This clearly establishes that the UJC's chairperson and executive committee should make jurisdiction decisions prior to a trial. This is designed to protect students from unnecessarily having to endure weeks worth of anxiety and uncertainty related to pending UJC charges that are outside the body's purview. Moreover, it is supposed to provide an element of consistency to the body's bounds of authority, which are enshrined in its constitution and therefore should not be altered without approval from the student body.
This latter point is particularly important because the UJC's disregard of precedence means that once constitutional matters such as jurisdiction are allowed to be decided in trial they lose their status as immutable expressions of the student body's will. Thus, the fact that the UJC trial panel ruled it did not have jurisdiction in this particular case does not bind other trial panels to rule in a similar manner should future cases of the same nature arise. This is deeply troubling since it means that the UJC has no well-defined jurisdictional boundaries and that other elements of its constitution can be construed in an arbitrary manner by trial panels rather than the student body as a whole.
Thus, The Cavalier Daily believes the outcome of this process is a step backward. Whereas previously it was clear that the student body had created a jurisdiction exemption in the UJC constitution that covered "the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups" - as well as the individual students who comprise those groups, as evidenced by a 1985 UJC constitutional controversy - the body's more recent decision to allow jurisdiction matters to be settled in trial erodes the solidity of that provision. This not only leaves media organizations at the whim of individual trial panels that may or may not be aware of the body's constitutional history, but also it removes from the student body's hands the authority to determine the structure and activities of the UJC. Although cases such as the one against The Cavalier Daily will not arise often, the precedent that has been set here is so threatening to the principle of self-governance that not even the UJC can ignore it.