VIRGINIA — Whilehonor code charges against the editor of the University of Virginia’s studentnewspaper were dropped this week, student journalists remain concerned abouttheir publication’s independence.
Charges against Jason Ally, editor in chief at the Cavalier Daily, were dropped as astudent judicial organization determined Tuesday it did not have jurisdictionto oversee the newspaper.
Though Ally got the outcome he and his staff at the Cavalier Daily wanted, he said his casedoesn’t set a precedent for the paper’s journalistic immunity from judicialoversight.
“Theoretically this whole ordeal could play out tomorrow ora few years down the road, and we could be in the same case where a studentjudicial organization doesn’t want to recognize freedom of the press,” he said.
Ally originally faced honor charges alongside the four othermanaging board members at the paper who wrote an editorial disclosing areporter had plagiarized material in multiple articles.
That disclosure brought attention from Honor Committee chairAnn Marie McKenzie, who filed charges through the University JudiciaryCommittee against the students for breaching the confidentiality of thewriter’s disciplinary case.
Last month Ally argued the UJC’s constitution exempts theeditors because it does not allow oversight of student groups’ editorialfunctions. Though charges against the four other editors were dropped, the judicialprocess moved forward against Ally.
But during a two-hour trial Tuesday night, a student judgeon the five-member panel hearing the case brought up the same question ofjurisdiction, with the panel deciding after an hour and a half of deliberationsthat jurisdiction was lacking.
“After all that time, for such a short decision, I was justkind of there shell-shocked for a moment thinking, ‘Wait a minute, what justhappened?’” Ally said. “And eventually I came to my senses and realizedessentially the trial panel accepted the argument the paper made six weeksago.”
University spokeswoman Carol Wood did not respond torequests for a phone interview but wrote in an email the school “did not take sides or issue an opinion” in thestudent-run judicial process but “watched closely.”
She also noted theuniqueness of the Cavalier Daily as afinancially independent, student-run organization composed of students whoagreed to the honor code set forth by the school.
“This case wasinteresting in that one group was, understandably, relying on the freedom ofthe press, while the other was relying on the community of trust,” she wrote.
Ally said the UJC operates on a case-by-case basis, so thedecision won’t be setting a precedent that protects the paper.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press LawCenter, said the real issue is the student judiciary lacks oversight.
“It shows there has to be oversight on student judiciary,”Goldstein said. “It’s not the obliteration of student self-governance tosuggest they be limited by the Constitution. I mean, student newspapers are. Ifa student newspaper were to print something beyond what the First Amendmentprotects, the university would step in, wouldn’t it? The bottom line is UVAshould have stepped in… when the student judiciary couldn’t decide what itsjurisdictional limitation was because at that point they exceeded their authority.”
Without assurance history cannot repeat itself at the paper,Ally said he plans to work with his staff to safeguard against futureproblematic situations.
“I think the best approach is that the paper itself ought tofigure out what we need to do to protect ourselves to make sure something like thisdoesn’t happen again,” Ally said. “And I don’t think that’s really the waythings should be because I think people ought to understand the paper has itsown freedoms in that we have our own ways of being accountable. But in a way Ifeel like I’m acknowledging the reality of the situation in what we need to dogoing forward.”