Confidentiality: A double-edged sword, The Phi weighs in

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The Ring-tum Phi Staff

This week’s article on the Honor System, entitled “The Secret System,” reveals just how central confidentiality is to our community. In many ways, it is the glue of the Honor System. According to many, this confidentiality is what makes our system so durable and so effective.

The kind of confidentiality we’re talking about is far more than EC members not revealing the identity of an accused student. It’s far more than not talking about student body hearings with people outside of the Washington and Lee community. It’s a part of the very fabric of W&L culture. But, in practice, it can sometimes come across as carefully organized secrecy and painstakingly intentional vagueness.

The EC talking point on confidentiality is that it protects students. As Mason Grist says, “We want to protect everyone who is involved because it’s obviously a very sensitive topic.”

As cumbersome as confidentiality can be, the EC is spot on in this regard. Protecting individual students is at the heart of the Honor System. The system protects us indirectly by establishing a community of trust. But it also protects us directly through the detailed protocol established in the White Book. Confidentiality is one of these protocols.

If an accused student choses to take his or her case to a student body hearing and is found not guilty, this student will remain a member of the W&L community like nothing ever happened. Sure, we as a community would know, but anyone outside the community would have no idea. But if the details about the case were revealed outside of the community, this student could be marked forever regardless of the outcome of the case. On a smaller scale, if details of a case were to be released before the case even reaches a closed hearing, rumors about the investigated student would spread like wildfire. Confidentiality allows the system to work for the student instead of against the student.

But confidentiality doesn’t come without its setbacks.

In the “Secret System” article, the difficulties described by Paul Judge, the head hearing advisor, are  a perfect example. Because hearing advisors must maintain strict confidentiality on the facts of their cases, discussion among hearing advisors is severely stifled. They can’t do much in the way of discussing specific tactics used in cases, lessons learned from specific cases, etc. Thus, confidentiality hinders students’ ability to learn from the Honor System. It makes the system less of a living, breathing organism and more of a distant, mysterious entity that no layperson can truly understand beyond vague hypotheticals.

The question of confidentiality also comes into play with coverage of student body hearings for the student body. Given their importance to our community, student body hearings should be followed and understood by every student at Washington and Lee. But this becomes a problem when the EC restricts what can be said by news outlets like The Ring-Tum Phi.

Last spring, the EC allowed the Phi to cover an upcoming hearing, but only if our staff signed a contract restricting what can be said, and how it can be said. Of course, this was all in the interest of confidentiality.

The Phi declined to sign the contract because it was simply too restricting. The EC asked that “no material facts” of the case be published. For obvious reasons, this nulled the purpose of a news article.

The question, then, becomes one of transparency. If nothing can be said about the specifics of the system, how do we as students know what is really going on? This isn’t to suggest some sort of conspiracy on the part of the EC to keep the student body in the dark. But we must realize that this shortcoming does exist. In this case, protecting the student comes at the expense of transparency.

Without strict confidentiality on the details of proceedings, the Honor System might very well fail the student body. But we cannot deny that our system has shortcomings. We as a student body must constantly consider the delicate balance between student protection and transparency that our Honor System attempts to maintain.