UVA student editors face charges after disclosing reporter's plagiarism

VIRGINIA — Onestudent reporter’s alleged plagiarism led to formal university charges againstfive editors at the University of Virginia.

This past week, the managing board at the Cavalier Daily student newspaper wrotean editorial outlining the steps it took to address plagiarism from within thenewsroom.

According to the Sept. 12 editorial, a writer turned in an“article that featured words and phrases copied verbatim from at least twoother sources without attribution,” a problem identified before the story went toprint. A subsequent investigation by the editors, however, uncovered threepublished stories with identifiable plagiarism.

In a bid for transparency, the editorial outlined steps themanaging board took to address the plagiarism — the writer was fired, the threeoffending articles were removed from the website and the incident was reportedto the school’s Honor Committee.

Two days later, Honor Committee chair Ann Marie McKenzie – astudent – filed charges against the five student editors through the school’sUniversity Judiciary Committee. The CavalierDaily reported McKenzie alleged the editorial breached the confidentialityof the writer’s Honor Committee investigation. Four of the charges have sincebeen dropped.

McKenzie did not respond to requests for comment for thisstory.

The managing board is composed of Jason Ally, editor inchief; Andrew Seidman, managing editor; Matthew Cameron, executive editor;Alyssa Juan, operations manager; and Allie Vandivier, chief financial officer.

Ally said the newspaper, while trying to be transparent,took steps to protect the identity of the writer.

“The initial editorial we ran disclosing the plagiarismincident did not include the writer’s name, the writer’s gender, what sectionthe writer worked for or even the titles of the published stories,” Ally said.

The editorial acknowledged the paper “reported the incidentto the Honor Committee,” language McKenzie alleged violates a part of theschool’s Standards of Conduct prohibiting “intentional, reckless, or negligentconduct which obstructs the operations of the Honor or Judiciary Committee, orconduct that violates their rules of confidentiality.”

That admission by the managing board was one membersdeliberated over, but Ally said acknowledging the reported honor incidentdidn’t compromise the confidentiality because “no personally identifiablepieces of information were conveyed.”

“On top of that,” Ally said, “anybody reading the editorialwould read into what’s going on here and realize that an honor investigationmust have been happening.”

Two university committees play roles in the proceedings. TheHonor Committee investigates reports of honor code violations, such as cheatingand plagiarism. The other — the University Judiciary Committee — hearscases involving violations to the Standards of Conduct, and this is whereMcKenzie filed the charges for violating rules of confidentiality.

Unlike the Honor Committee, which conducts a formalinvestigation before a three-member panel decides whether it should continue totrial, a complaint filed with the UJC immediately gets a trial date if the UJCdecides it has jurisdiction, Ally said.

The UJC’s constitution states it shall not have jurisdictionover “the exercise of journalistic and editorial functions by student groups.” Buton Sept. 22, the UJC executive committee decided it could continue with thetrial despite the newspaper’s objection.

Ally said he believes there has been an understanding since1985 that the journalism exemption applies not only to news organizations as awhole, but also to individual staff members. The UJC’s decision to continuewith the case challenged that claim.

“If you actually buy that argument then this exemption isworthless because if a student media organization as an entity is exempt fromUJC jurisdiction, yet the individuals who comprise that organization areactually in UJC jurisdiction, then the exemption is meaningless,” he said.

Representatives from the Honor Committee, UJC and the newspaperhad a meeting Sept. 23 moderated by university spokeswoman Carol Wood andPatricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer. Wood didnot return a phone call by press time.

On Monday, an email from Victoria Marchetti, chair of theUJC, stated McKenzie dropped four of the five charges, but the charge againstAlly, the editor in chief, remains.

Asked to comment for this story, Marchetti wrote in an email,“I will not comment on confidential matters pertaining to the UniversityJudiciary Committee.”

During the latest developments, Ally’s staff went into thepaper’s archives and found a 26-year-old incident that could potentiallyclarify its claim the UJC does not have jurisdiction. According to a story fromMarch 28, 1985, an ad hoc committee within the UJC recommended changing thejurisdictional clause so it could oversee student media groups. On April 1,1985, the paper reported student media organizations were starting a petitionto reject the recommendation. The UJC subsequently dropped the proposal.

“We found this incident in 1985 where it was clearlyarticulated that the exemption includes individuals, not just the entity of amedia organization itself,” Ally said.

Ally submitted this latest evidence Monday night to the UJCexecutive committee to reassess its original claim of jurisdiction.

“I urged them to look at this new evidence and reassess itsjurisdiction decision because I think honestly the information we have foundmakes it clear-cut that they do not have jurisdiction to hear this case,” Allysaid. “So it needs to be dismissed as soon as possible on jurisdictionalgrounds.”

Ally said the executive committee meets on Sunday andWednesday nights, and he expects a response could come as soon as this week.

Ally also said he was unsure of the potential penalties ifhe is found guilty.