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Making good on bad message

IT'S RARE to see a column inspired by hot dogs. Wurst of any kind usually don't get much press. But last week a few hot dogs did some damage to first-year students' image of the University Judiciary Committee.

The wieners in question appeared on a flyer the Committee posted and distributed in first-year residence areas. The flyer, one of a handful of different designs meant to pique interest in the First Year Judiciary Committee, seems harmless enough.

It shows a pair of hot dogs - or are they bratwurst? - roasting on a grill. But what's interesting isn't the Committee's choice of cuisine: It's their choice of words.

Across the top of the flyer, in bold letters, is a question meant to entice interest in FYJC: "Want to make your fellow first years fry?" An interesting way to promote an organization.

And a potentially destructive one, at that. There's no other information on the flyer. There's just an off-center joke implying that to become a first-year judge, or to become part of the UJC at all, is to have an opportunity to severely punish students. Students should become judges because of the fun and excitement of handing out tough sanctions. Be a judge, because it's cool to nail your classmates.

That's not a message the Committee needs to spread, and they've admitted that. Committee member Corrie Hall, vice chairwoman for first years, readily admitted that the flyer was a mistake. In an interview, she acknowledged designing and distributing the flyer, and explained that it was simply a joke.

It's okay to joke about the Committee. Taking oneself too seriously doesn't do any good. But better jokes could have been made, jokes that didn't suggest an abuse of sanctioning power. To her credit, Hall promptly fixed the mistake. The offending flyers quickly came down. Hall's openness to community concerns and quick remedial action speaks well of the Committee.

The flyers are down and the world will go on, and hopefully the Committee will continue with a successful administration. But the message spread through first-year living areas needs to be corrected.

A strong judiciary system should make a strong first impression on new students. But that impression can be positive, and can emphasize the good things first-year judges can do for their classmates, not the negative things they can do to them.

The Committee traditionally focuses on educating students and on using the Standards of Conduct to foster a safe, healthy and trusting community. When the focus shifts to punishment, the results can be destructive.

First-year students interested in participating in the judiciary system should enter it enthusiastic about their opportunity to serve. They should not be encouraged to harbor a cowboy mentality where stiff sanctions and watchdog enforcement are the norm. Likewise, students new to the University should feel that the system is working on their behalf. Language such as that on the flyers conditions students to expect an overly aggressive system bent on nailing students, not educating them.

In the last year, the Committee proved that it can and will deliver extreme sanctions when it deems them necessary. But harsh sanctions need not be flaunted. Nor must they be used to recruit students. Sanctions are a way to punish and deter violations, but given the confidentiality of the system, they are best suited as educational tools. Through the adjudication process, violators learn why their offense hurt the community and why the community cannot tolerate it. Through sanctions, the message is reinforced: Our community holds certain standards in esteem and will forgive transgressions if the offenders learn from and pay for their mistakes.

The Committee plays a vital and positive role in the community, and executes its duties with class and competence. Few members of the Committee, Hall included, would assert that the aggressive flyers indicate the Committee's true stance. They simply were a mistake, a joke that didn't hit the mark.

But such mistakes can't happen at that level. Public perceptions of the judiciary's role and its fairness must be positive in order for the Committee to work effectively. A public that believes the Committee is out to get them won't trust the Committee, won't cooperate with its agenda, and won't maintain positive lines of communication.

Language matters, and when the stakes of leadership move to a certain level, it's wise to monitor language vigilantly. The Committee makes decisions that affect students significantly, and in the occasional extreme case, it makes decisions that affect lives. It must watch its words. Careless statements allow misinformation to flourish.

The language used in these flyers was wrong, and should have been subjected to closer scrutiny by Committee leaders. The Committee would do well to correct its gaffe by reaffirming to first-year students the emphasis placed on education and community improvement. The Committee's efforts are in the right place. Its words can be too.

Getting worked up over a few hot dogs sounds like splitting hairs. But a confidential system has only one way to foster a positive image: through its communication with the public. If the wrong message went out, then the Committee can go in and reaffirm the right message. Since the University can't gain a better understanding of the Committee's role by watching what it does, the Committee can encourage that understanding by watching what it says.

(Tom Bednar is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)

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