Update: after speaking with the student involved, I’ve updated my post to reflect her side of the story.
Let me paint a picture for you:
A college newspaper publishes a story about the lack of security at an off-campus bar. A sophomore is quoted in the article as claiming to get in the bar over 21 with her fake ID. That sophomore was under the impression that her quote would be attributed anonymously, but the article included her full name. The university then investigates the sophomore for violating the honor code (for possessing a fake ID). The next edition of the newspaper comes bearing the heading: “HYPOCRISY EXPOSED”, delivering a scornful editorial directed toward university administration for “threatening free speech”. Confused? Me too.
For those of you not familiar with my background, I went to college at a small private school in North Carolina called Elon University. Because it’s my alma mater, and especially because of the reputation of Elon’s communication school (including the student newspaper), to say I’m shocked by this chain of events is an understatement.
After learning that the student, Hilary Stevenson, was being charged for her offense, The Pendulum has been in an uproar about the university’s reaction to the story. Editor-in-Chief, Anna Johnson, explained, “We see this as a blatant disregard for public forum. We see this as hypocritical from a university who is trying to promote an atmosphere of free speech.”
Did I miss something here? The university (or even The Pendulum faculty advisor) never attempted to exercise prior restraint and prevent the story from being published. The university never scolded The Pendulum for publishing a student’s name. The university didn’t force The Pendulum to reveal an anonymous source (in fact, Stevenson was under the impression she would be treated as an anonymous source). The university didn’t give The Pendulum permission (or deny permission) to publish this article. No part of the article was censored by the school. In fact, all the university did as a result of the story was investigate a student for a crime she openly admitted to committing… in a media outlet.
So here’s where the confusion begins, because newspaper is now trying to expose a smoking gun that never was. Did The Pendulum really think that just because the Stevenson’s admission came through a media outlet, that she wouldn’t be charged? That the school would look the other way? Would they expect similar treatment of a student admitting to stealing from the campus store, hazing on their club sport team, or selling drugs to make extra cash? If the university can’t be expected to turn a blind eye to admission of these types of crimes, than their actions in this case should come as no surprise to anyone.
…Not to mention, the main point of the article that started this whole hullabaloo was to point out shortcomings in drinking rule enforcement.
Quite frankly, I’m amazed this disparaging response article by The Pendulum was even published. How could they not see the university’s response coming? Conversely, if they weren’t worried about some type of disciplinary action in response to Stevenson’s admission, why would they offer Stevenson anonymity in the first place? And I’d love to hear the opinion of the newspaper’s faculty advisor on this whole situation. It would be pretty appalling to hear that a professor of communications actually believes the school’s actions to be contradictory of the first amendment.
Regardless of your personal beliefs regarding underage drinking, fake IDs, or the first amendment, private universities have a right to enforce school policies. According to Elon’s honor code, students are responsible for abiding by the honor code from the start of their time at the university until graduation. Admitting your crime in a public forum (whether it be twitter, facebook, a newspaper interview, or during a discussion in class) in no way offers immunity from the consequences of your actions, and this case is no different.
You can practically see angry journalists spitting out the final line of their response piece: “Elon administration has the responsibility to respect the integrity of those who choose to come forward as honest participants in this so-called open dialogue” (emphasis from original article). Pendulum, you let your desire for a controversial exposé cloud your judgement here. Don’t forget that Elon administration also has a responsibility to enforce the honor code policies that students are bound to. You can’t blame the school for finishing what you started.