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HINE: Vote “no” on Referenda Two and Three

The language in these referenda are too ambiguous

The Opinion pages of The Cavalier Daily have recently been marked by polarized arguments over the merits of the Honor Committee’s sanctioning system. Is a multi-single sanction system firm in its morality? Do the three proposed referenda represent a moral failure? This is an important debate, and one I’ve been pleased to see and take part in. But when voting on a series of proposed reforms to the honor system begins Friday morning, I hope we do not merely consider the philosophical implications of a vote on our sanctioning system. As stewards of the honor system, we have a responsibility to consider the practical realities of the specific referenda put before us.

I will vote no on Referenda Two and Three — not out of support for the single sanction — but because I do not know what these referenda will require the next Honor Committee to do should they both pass. These proposals’ obfuscated meaning should concern every student, single sanction supporter or not. The exact language of Referendum Two reads:

“Should a majority of voting students vote affirmatively on a non-binding question of opinion pertaining to the Honor System in a University-wide election, the Honor Committee shall, in the following year, put such a question before the student body as a binding constitutional amendment.”

Judging by their campaign platforms, the authors of this amendment — Jaeyoon Park and Ian Robertson — assume this language would require the Honor Committee to put a constitutionally binding multi-sanction system proposal before the student body for a vote next year, should it pass along with their proposed non-binding question of opinion. But Referendum Two and the non-binding question, if passed together, do not appear to require that on closer read. The simplest interpretation of “such a question” and the language that follows in Referendum Two is that it requires the Honor Committee to ask the approved non-binding question again, in binding form. This would not be misaligned with the rhetoric of the Campaign for Self-Governance if the non-binding question detailed sweeping multi-sanction change. Here’s the issue: the language of Referendum Three is not aligned with the presumed purpose of this campaign.

The language of the non-binding question in Referendum Three is as follows: “Should the Honor Committee consider implementing a multi-sanction system?” Given the language of Referendum Two, it should be of great concern that the non-binding question is so general that it could not coherently amend the constitution if proposed in binding form. If passed, the Honor Committee would presumably have to propose its own version of the current non-binding question next year. And to remain faithful to the language of this non-binding question, the Committee would be justified in and perhaps required to propose an amendment binding the Committee to consideration of sanction reform.

The authors of these referenda are multi-sanction proponents who express frustration that the Committee considered, but did not adopt, a multi-sanction system after a 2004 vote approved the same non-binding question that appears this year. But by utilizing the same non-committal language (either by mistake or in an effort to make the question more palatable), they have put forth a proposal that would bind the Committee to do no more than it did after 2004.

I do not know who will be on the Honor Committee next year, nor do I know exactly how they will interpret the mandate of these referenda should they pass. But I do know one thing: language matters. We all have an interest in ensuring ambiguous language stays out of the governing documents of our University’s Honor Committee. We would be poor stewards of the system if we left the Committee with crucial questions over the interpretation of its constitution, and it would be irresponsible to vote for an amendment with unclear implications for honor at our University. I sympathize with the authors’ intentions, but responsible self-governance is not rooted in obscure constitutional mandates. We may not all agree on the single sanction, but we should all oppose ambiguity. I will vote no for Referenda Two and Three.

Nicholas Hine is a fourth-year in the College and the chair of the Honor Committee.