An unwelcome editor

The University Board of Elections should not have revised referenda language approved by more than 2,100 students

The University Board of Elections’ decision to alter the text of a proposed amendment to the Honor Committee’s constitution before voting started Monday raises questions of fairness.

Second-year Law student Frank Bellamy this month put forth a referendum that offered an alternative to the Committee’s Restore the Ideal Act. Bellamy’s referendum supports informed retraction but not jury reform. While the Committee has served up these two components as a package deal, Bellamy sought to extricate the reforms, presenting students in favor of informed retraction but uneasy about jury reform with an appealing alternative.

Bellamy wasn’t alone in thinking the reforms should be voted on separately. His amendment garnered roughly 2,100 signatures, landing it a spot on the ballot.

When penning his proposal, however, Bellamy got his shoelaces snared in the Committee’s bylaws. Informed retraction as defined in the Committee’s proposal takes place early in the case process. After receiving a notice letter formally accusing them of an honor offense students have a week to submit an informed retraction — before the Committee launches an investigation.

Bellamy’s proposal, before the UBE revised it, offered the informed retraction as an option for an “accused” student. In the Committee’s bylaws, a student is not considered “accused” until an investigative panel votes to formally accuse him or her. If Bellamy’s proposal were to pass in its original language, students would potentially have the option to weigh evidence against them before deciding whether to submit an informed retraction. Honesty would give way to self-interest.

The problem was a matter of one word and thousands of signatures. So the UBE brandished its red pen to change “accused” to “informed” in Bellamy’s proposal. The word change aligned Bellamy’s referendum with the informed-retraction option put forth in the Restore the Ideal Act. Bellamy affirmed that the change was consistent with his intentions — and, he believes, the intentions of the 2,100 students who flocked to sign his original amendment.

We don’t doubt that the UBE’s language change aligns Bellamy’s proposal with his intentions and the intentions of most students who signed. But is it the UBE’s role to fix errors to satisfy intentions? The UBE’s action sets a disconcerting precedent.

Determining intention is difficult. Whether all of the 2,100 or so who supported Bellamy’s original measure approve of the UBE’s change is a tough claim to sustain. A few with knowledge of the Committee’s workings might have wanted informed retraction to come later in the process. And if the UBE’s change would cause a signee to revoke her support, can her signature, which helped the measure nab a spot on the ballot, still count? The Committee’s constitution requires that 10 percent of the student body sign a petition for an amendment to be placed on the ballot in a University-wide election. Some 21,095 students are currently on Grounds. If the UBE change were to cause even a fraction of Bellamy’s signees to withdraw their support, his proposal’s spot on the ballot would no longer be valid. Retroactively changing the proposal’s language makes any claims about intention disputable. One can guess at others’ intentions, but one cannot definitively ascribe intentions based on speculation.

But the question of whether the language change honors the signees’ intentions or impacts the legitimacy of signatures is a side concern. More pressing is the matter of process. For the UBE to change referenda language that could enact something potentially illegal, or something the Board of Visitors would undoubtedly reject, might be justified. But should the UBE change already-approved referenda language in response to the intentions of students who submit proposals?

Bellamy’s error is forgivable. The distinction between “accused” and “informed” is hazy for those not immersed in honor proceedings. But the Committee posted the full text of the Restore the Ideal Act online in late January, said Committee Chair Stephen Nash, a fourth-year College student. Bellamy submitted his proposal in mid-February, which gave him a few weeks to review his amendment’s language to make sure it was in accordance with the Committee’s reforms.

The UBE should have let Bellamy’s error stand rather than risk overreaching. Though the UBE’s own intentions were surely pure, retroactively intervening in referenda language makes assumptions about others’ intentions that cannot be confirmed. If 2,100 students sign off on referenda language, that language should not be unilaterally changed before it hits the ballot.

Published February 26, 2013 in Opinion

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