UVA student editors face charges after disclosing reporter's plagiarism

VIRGINIA — One student reporter’s alleged plagiarism led to formal university charges against five editors at the University of Virginia.

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

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

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

Two days later, Honor Committee chair Ann Marie McKenzie – a student – filed charges against the five student editors through the school’s University Judiciary Committee. The Cavalier Daily reported McKenzie alleged the editorial breached the confidentiality of the writer’s Honor Committee investigation. Four of the charges have since been dropped.

McKenzie did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The managing board is composed of Jason Ally, editor in chief; 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 plagiarism incident did not include the writer’s name, the writer’s gender, what section the writer worked for or even the titles of the published stories,” Ally said.

The editorial acknowledged the paper “reported the incident to the Honor Committee,” language McKenzie alleged violates a part of the school’s Standards of Conduct prohibiting “intentional, reckless, or negligent conduct which obstructs the operations of the Honor or Judiciary Committee, or conduct that violates their rules of confidentiality.”

That admission by the managing board was one members deliberated over, but Ally said acknowledging the reported honor incident didn’t compromise the confidentiality because “no personally identifiable pieces of information were conveyed.”

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

Two university committees play roles in the proceedings. The Honor Committee investigates reports of honor code violations, such as cheating and plagiarism. The other — the University Judiciary Committee — hears cases involving violations to the Standards of Conduct, and this is where McKenzie filed the charges for violating rules of confidentiality.

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

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

Ally said he believes there has been an understanding since 1985 that the journalism exemption applies not only to news organizations as a whole, but also to individual staff members. The UJC’s decision to continue with the case challenged that claim.

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

Representatives from the Honor Committee, UJC and the newspaper had a meeting Sept. 23 moderated by university spokeswoman Carol Wood and Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer. Wood did not return a phone call by press time.

On Monday, an email from Victoria Marchetti, chair of the UJC, stated McKenzie dropped four of the five charges, but the charge against Ally, 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 University Judiciary Committee.”

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

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

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

“I urged them to look at this new evidence and reassess its jurisdiction decision because I think honestly the information we have found makes it clear-cut that they do not have jurisdiction to hear this case,” Ally said. “So it needs to be dismissed as soon as possible on jurisdictional grounds.”

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

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

Cavalier Daily, news, University of Virginia, Virginia