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Student investigated for comment published in The Pendulum

by Kassondra Cloos,

For the first time in Elon University's history, a student is facing a Student Conduct investigation because of a comment published in The Pendulum. While there is no precedent, members of the administration said it should not come as a surprise.

In the Nov. 30 edition of The Pendulum, sophomore Hilary Stevenson was quoted saying she possessed a fake ID and had used it to drink while underage at College Street Tap House. It wasn't long before she received an email from Jodean Schmiederer, assistant dean of students, telling her to set up a Student Conduct meeting to address the admitted Honor Code violations. Stevenson declined anonymity when interviewed for the article and would not comment on the potential charges.

Smith Jackson, vice president and dean of Student Life, was not involved in the decision to potentially charge Stevenson. But he said he thinks students should anticipate the consequences that accompany attaching their names to such charged statements. Instead, they should more seriously consider remaining anonymous.

"If students are violating policies or laws, I think it's certainly better for them not to give their names or put themselves in these situations," Jackson said. "Would the story have had a bigger impact for me as a reader if you said 'a sophomore with whom we spoke said this?' That would have been just as informative to me as it would to have used someone's name."

While Elon's student handbook doesn't specify that students may be charged for comments made public by student media organizations, the Honor Code holds students responsible for every action made between matriculation and graduation, according to Elon administration. Student Conduct follows up on any potential violation of the code, regardless of the means in which the violation was brought to the office's attention.

Whitney Gregory, director of Student Conduct, said students are liable for comments made on social media websites and in public forums. Even comments about underage drinking made in front of a professor — or fellow student — are fair game for an investigation. The office has fielded numerous tip-offs on Honor Code violations from students, faculty and staff alike, Gregory said.

"Students need to be aware that if they indicate verbally an Honor Code violation, whether that's on a Facebook page, on Twitter, in a public setting or in a publication, then that is something that we will be responding to if it comes to our attention," she said.

In the past year, Jackson and President Leo Lambert have been making a visible push for open dialogue and students' freedom of speech and expression.

With the creation of the Speakers' Corner last semester and the recent developments of regular open forums between students and staff, the university has presented itself as a nurturer of honest discussion. But charging a student based on a comment printed in a student newspaper could have a highly detrimental effect on students' future willingness to take responsibility for their comments, according to Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center.

"If your overall goal as an institution is to reduce illegal drinking or underage drinking or drinking on campus, then you want people to come forward when they have information relevant to how students are acquiring alcohol on campus," Goldstein said.

Lambert would not comment on the effect Stevenson's case may have on Elon's quest for open dialogue.

Rich Landesberg, a communications professor and faculty adviser for Phoenix 14 News, said he doesn't think the university intended to stifle free speech by investigating Stevenson and he has never felt restricted by the administration. But, like Goldstein, he said the circumstances could deter students from speaking on the record in the future.

"I would be concerned about the chilling effect it might have on people speaking to the press if they fear that anything they might say could be interpreted as a violation of the Honor Code," Landesberg said.

Like Jackson, Schmiederer also advised students to speak under condition of anonymity. But she was unclear about a potential solution for the chilling effect the sanctions may have on future open discussions about campus issues like underage drinking.

"I think talking about issues and challenges and problems that exist within the student community is an important thing to have a conversation about," Schmiederer said. "I'm certainly not asking students to come forward and say, 'I violated the Honor Code in this way.'"

Jackson said the university would not ask The Pendulum to reveal the names of anonymous sources unless a student's life were in jeopardy. But in the case of students admitting to having engaged in illegal activities, it would be a liability for the university to not interfere judicially.

If the university were to give a student amnesty for admitting an Honor Code-violating activity, such as drinking underage, in a public setting, the university could be held responsible if that student were to later endanger his or herself while engaging in the same activity, Jackson said. At the very least, he said a conversation with the student would be necessary.

Goldstein said he has never heard of a student being punished based on a comment made to student media.

"I think that the only way to really solve the problem big picture is for the university to realize what a lousy, lousy policy it is, to go after people for these things," he said. "It's like a no fly list, right? We only catch terrorists who go under their real name. If you're smart enough to lie about your name, then you're not going to get caught. There's an element of that here. Does the university want to stop underage drinking, or do they want to stop people from admitting it?"

Additional reporting by Rebecca Smith.