The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Tight-lipped about trials

Open honor trials offer a rare glimpse into the trial system

The Honor Committee is notoriously tight-lipped. In a well-intentioned effort to protect student privacy and abide by the FERPA privacy statute, the Committee shares very little information about trials or the students involved, even when those students are willing to share their own stories. As a result, The Cavalier Daily is only able to bring to light the information given to it by these students or what can be surmised from attending the open trials. Unfortunately, the Committee’s good intentions often deprive the student body of a comprehensive account of trial events and at times breed suspicion about the Committee, whose commitment to privacy may appear more alienating than honorable to some.

In open trials, such as the most recently publicized case, The Cavalier Daily is able to report on information from the trial proceedings themselves. The reporter is able to physically attend the trial and report on the information he gathers while there. If students wish to share their sides of the story by speaking with The Cavalier Daily, that information is included in the story as well. The Committee itself, however, has a blanket policy to decline to answer all questions about specific cases. This is true even when the students involved wish the details of their cases to be made public by speaking to the newspaper or requesting an open trial. The dismissal of a juror for reading a book during proceedings, for instance, could not be addressed by the Committee, and was only covered because the recent trial’s openness allowed for a reporter to be on the scene.

Though the Committee is right to decline comment in most cases, when the student on trial is willing to make his case public, the Committee should answer questions regarding the proceedings that were open to view. Some questions directed toward the Committee concern merely objective details and those certainly merit a response. In general, the Committee should reverse its policy of trying to say as little as possible, instead commenting except when federal privacy laws dictate it cannot. Because of the Committee’s tight-lipped policy, readers may see the process as overly secretive, viewing the Committee in a negative light. By relaxing its restrictive responses, the Committee might finally develop a more open and communicative relationship with the student body.

Failing a change in Committee policy, the primary tool available to inquiring minds is the existing news coverage of open honor trials. Those who read these accounts, however, should be aware of the circumstances surrounding them. They should note that often only the accused student’s voice is heard while the Committee and the students who serve as honor counsels and in other official positions decline to comment. In some situations, this leads to a story where only one point of view is relayed to the reader. If readers realize this, they can get the full value out of the story, while being aware of the lack of comprehensive coverage that comes from the implicit bias of just one perspective.

Even with these drawbacks, open trial coverage can still be valuable. Open trials represent the only reliable insight into how the honor system adjudicates its cases. Having a reporter attend an open honor trial allows the clearest view of the trial system. Without open trials and with the Committee’s refusal to comment, the only remaining accounts are from accused students who can only tell one side of the story. Though open trial coverage is far from ideal, if readers understand the potential drawbacks, it can be a powerful tool to help students understand their honor system.


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