OPINIONS

Letter from the Editor: On Libel, Due Diligence and Intimidation

I woke up early this morning, rolled over, checked my laptop and opened an email labeled URGENT. It was from a senior University official informing me that The Daily had published a libelous story.

Uh oh.

The next 10 minutes of my browser history are filled with Google searches for “defamation lawsuits with newspapers,” Supreme Court case briefs and blogs on libel..

But as I continued to comb through the Internet, fearing perhaps that I had fallen asleep in my journalism ethics class or in the host of communications classes that have touched on libel, slander and the like, I began almost to laugh.

It certainly wasn’t because I (and the rest of the staff here at The Daily) take the accusation of defamation or libel anything less than extremely seriously. (My news editor would call me some hours later in somewhat of a panic after waking up to the same email.)

No, my amusement was rather directed at the gall of the University to send me a message that carried with it the threat of pursuing a libel case, a message that I felt at least in some way had to be sent with an air of intimidation.

The story in question was one I believe is of extreme importance to the student body and Stanford community. “Case study finds flawed, slanted judicial process” details a case study put together by three students and their alumni representatives, including Bob Ottilie ’77, after a 2011 judicial proceeding. The students say that several of their rights under the Student Judicial Charter of 1997 were obstructed and that it seemed unlikely that their case was merely the outlier in a system that saw 154 allegations of violations (resulting in 93 official charges) of either the Honor Code or the Fundamental Standard in 2010-11.

This should matter to you, students, and to you, alumni, and to you, staff, faculty and administrators. The case study is thorough, and if half of the allegations of misconduct are true, students should simply be scared enough to call for more transparency in the judicial affairs process as a whole.

And if the allegations are false, then I beg the University to call Bob Ottilie and these three students out for concocting a gross lie. I beg them to call me out for believing in the charade. But at this moment, I have heard nothing of substance that would lead me to believe that this study is anything but true.

I know there are privacy laws that must be obeyed, and I know this might put an unfair expectation on University officials to answer questions they say they are not allowed to on advice of counsel. This, then, appears to be an unfortunate impasse for both parties, as we at The Daily must deal in facts and quotes to retain any real credibility.

But to that end, The Daily’s reporters went through a follow-up investigation of the case. And in the subsequent interviews that we conducted, University officials noted disagreements with some aspects of the case and contested the light in which it paints some of the officials involved. Dean of Student Life Chris Griffith notes in a letter to the editor that “to extrapolate from a single anomalous case that an entire system is flawed is simply wrong.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

However, Griffith also says despite being “seriously flawed and inaccurate” in many instances, “the case study was helpful in some limited respects.”

If the study was helpful, does that not mean that at the very least, some of what was said was accurate? Does that not imply that somewhere in the wealth of evidence that Otillie and these students provide (the case study itself is over 50 pages), something stuck?

That’s what it says to me, and that is what scares me, because in my mind that begins a descent down a slippery slope that trends towards students not being aware of many of the rights they possess and ultimately ends with an innocent student being convicted in an unfair process. I am not saying that this has occurred, as I have no knowledge of any such case, but I am saying that it is our role at The Daily to be vigilant and watchful and to report on issues that we believe should be moved further into the light of day.

In short, this is a story worth telling, and I hope administrators can appreciate that just as there is value in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities with the goal to improve Stanford, student life and the world, there is value in my job and The Daily’s job to educate and inform students and the community about relevant issues.

And while I have no way of knowing whether or not the actions of the senior official who contacted me were at the direction of the general counsel or any other group of University administrators, they felt and read strongly like intimidation.

Perhaps I am overreacting, and the email, as well as the phone call I received 20 minutes after the email, were just misguided attempts to warn me of my exposure at The Daily. Certainly the call was neither intimidating nor berating as I explained my confusion as to how the story we published would in any way qualify as libel.

In fact, after I noted that The Daily had done its due diligence and was neither malicious nor negligent in its coverage of the story, the official was very agreeable. But that does not make the email go away nor change the tone of what read as a threat of a lawsuit should The Daily not take the story down and redact the names of the officials alleged to have done wrong.

Just as I believe that students care enough about what happens on this campus to find the truth for themselves, I believe The Daily has a responsibility to inform its readers of potential misconduct, and we will continue to do just that, right alongside the overwhelming body of outstanding work that emanates from this institution.

Miles Bennett-Smith

Editor in Chief

About Miles Bennett-Smith

Miles Bennett-Smith is Chief Operating Officer at The Daily. An avid sports fan from Penryn, Calif., Miles graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in American Studies. He has previously served as the Editor in Chief and President at The Daily. He has also worked as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee. Email him at eic@stanforddaily.com
  • Student

    A few points.

    This is the worst of Stanford. There is a strain of the administration who’s primary function appears to be to stifle student freedom, activity and expression, and then resort to intimidation when people speak out against it. This is not the University I love. This is not the University I want to continue to support and donate to.

    A fairly intimidating email was also sent out yesterday regarding “sexual harassment and all forms of sexual intimidation and exploitation”. I’ll take addressing sexual relations as case in point representative of the larger issues here. Clearly there are important problems. Sexual assault happens and is something to be addressed. Stanford’s usual approach to dealing with important problems, such as with the exemplary work done by OAPE, focuses on preventative work. This is the best of Stanford: where we address serious issues such as alcohol abuse in a way that gives students the freedom to make mistakes and grow, and the knowledge that Stanford will help them stand back up.

    Regarding sexual assault, and other aspects of the Office of Judicial Affairs process, it’s currently all about draconian punishment.

    I am aware of three cases where students I know have gone through the sexual line of the process. My impression was that each of them found it intimidating and somewhat traumatizing. There were threats to expel them and revoke diplomas. The core of the current approach to improving sexual relations on campus is intimidation. This is not the Stanford approach.

    On a personal level, while I am fortunate to have had no dealings with the sexual assault office, if I had to describe the atmosphere in one word it would be ‘stifling’. I’m in college, yet I feel like there’s no way that I could have a casual sexual encounter at Stanford. There’s no way I could have a full hook up at a party. It even makes me wary in an established relationship because I know of a case where a long-time couple that had an acrimonious end to the relationship got dragged through the traumatizing process. No wonder students need counseling when the university process for dealing with a crappy break-up is to threaten to kick them out of the university.

    They’ve made the risks far too high and it is stifling sexual relations. The presumption of guilt is on the accused party, with a preponderance of evidence standard, and, implicitly in the process, you would essentially need some form of clear evidence to be acquitted. Honestly, it kind of feels like the modern incarnation of anti-sex, witch-hunt-like, puritan moralists; Big Brother is in the bedroom.

    I’m out of here soon. I have no incentive to improve this process. Yet I do want to say, that the draconian approach to enforcing community standards makes me not want to be a part of the community. Let’s get back to the preemptive, preventive method.

    Bad things happen and I want them to be stopped as much as the next person. However, here are two wildly different approaches to enforcing community standards, of the sexual nature or otherwise: preventive or punitive. Since the office is rebranding to the Office of Community Standards, the question becomes, what kind of community standards do we want, and how do we want to enforce them?

    My 2 cents, let’s create a process more oriented around prevention and rehabilitation, engage in a dialogue with students rather than trying to intimidate them, and try to create a community that gives students the freedom to make mistakes and then helps them get back on the bike.

  • concerned

    Miles, thanks for letting us know this happened, and thanks for not being strong armed.

    I think that this, perhaps more than anything that was in the case study or other stories from the Judicial process, show that something is wrong in how our university is being handled.

  • ugh

    this entire piece is a grammatical nightmare.

  • Steven

    Just to voice the other aspect of the issue which it seems like the student above neglects to a small extent: sexual assault is genuinely far more of a thing that happens and is under-prosecuted than innocent sexual consentuals ending up falsely sentenced.

    Those who are guilty of sexual assault will fully take advantage of any leniency that the system grants them.

    As somebody with plenty of sexual experience at Stanford, I don’t think it’s really that hard to have sexual interactions with people with whom you’ve developed a modicum of trust and consent, a sufficient enough basis for fully consentual sexual relations. It shouldn’t be that hard to take prudent acts to the extent that you’re extremely unlikely to face any charges of sexual misconduct, and if you do that you’d be fully able to defend yourself against any such charges.

    So yes, if you’re drunk and just met a new hook-up partner, it means waiting. I’m sorry, but that’s the cost that’s created when you’re working to prevent sexual assault. Again, yes, maybe some genuinely “consensual” drunken hookups may need to be postponed until you’re sober. But the benefit is that those who would commit sexual acts WITHOUT full consent of their partner(s) are held accountable, and one of the largest scourges of college life (the rate of sexual assault of women, especially) could be given proper treatment in our quasi-legal system.

  • Student

    Hi Steven,

    I agree with the point in your first and second paragraph. I did mention the importance of the sexual assault issue. There seems to be an expectation when writing at Stanford that you will pay lengthy homage to the importance of an issue before addressing it. This is a lot of overhead, so I mentioned it and cut to the point, as the focus of the comment was on advocating a preventive rather than punitive approach.

    Regarding the third paragraph, I’ve been in relationships for the majority of my time at Stanford, and I agree that risks are mitigated through a prudent approach. However, even if you act with good intentions and integrity, I still assign a nontrivial probability to some of the risks occurring from some of the instances I’ve heard about. The combination of this nontrivial probability combined with a system that arguably has biases against the accused (male, female, etc) and a low standard of proof with draconian punishments, increases the weighting I would assign to the risks in my considerations. Sure, like you, I’ve had a number of great relationships at Stanford, yet I still think that the current setup is far from optimal.

    On the fourth paragraph, perhaps you are right. Maybe we do need to sacrifice more casual, and drunk in particular, hookups to prevent sexual assault from occurring. I’m personally fine with this and usually don’t rush relations anyway. I’ll grant that that the returns from reducing sexual assault numbers may well justify this cost. I’ll still push back on many of the other costs that I mentioned. There’s certainly not a clear line here. Long-term consequence seem appropriate for severe instances of sexual assault. The instances where I am more concerned about how the current system is handling are those that are more grey, yet can still have a long-term, detrimental impact on students’ lives. These are the instances to think through. I agree with much of what you are saying – my 2 cents is just that I feel we’ve gone too far in the punitive direction with our current solutions, and I’d advocate more exploration of possibilities for preventative and rehabilitation oriented approaches.

    Thank you for the response. I commend you for expressing your thoughts on this area.

  • Steven

    Thank you, too, for that reasonable and thoughtful response.

  • Student

    I appreciate the dialogue. Thanks for the thoughtful and reasonable remarks too; I hope people continue these discussions going forward.

  • “ugh”

    Please go cry about it.

  • Really?

    Whaaaaaaaat? If you are seriously stopping hook ups because “what if I get accused of rape!?” you have a problem.

  • Student

    Regarding saying that someone has a problem, this is not constructive. Give reasons for your views. That’s better than saying you don’t like someone’s conclusion, which is again a vast improvement upon saying the person who proposed a conclusion has a problem. I am open minded with respect to my views. I regularly adjust, or completely change, them based on feedback and additional information. I request that in the future you provide reasons, evidence or something compelling enough to challenge the conclusions or supporting reasoning that has been laid out.

    Regarding “what if I get accused of rape!?”, if you’ve been paying attention to the national conversation, which the Stanford system is somewhat akin to, then you may be aware that “verbal conduct” is now included in the definition of sexual harassment (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323582904578485041304763554.html). Saying it’s about rape accusations doesn’t represent how low the bar really is.

    Regarding your general point about stopping hookups, the goal is of course to have incredible, consensual experiences with people. I am very much sex-positive. Sexual relations can be one of the highlights of the human experience. I feel that the current, arguably punitive with low barriers, system does not facilitate truly consensual hookups in a way that is at a level of risk low enough for those who have a risk-profile in this area informed by their ambition.

    I have great admiration for the work that the sexual assault office does, and all of those who have worked on these issues on campus. My comments were laying out an affirmative argument for an approach more focused on preemption, rehabilitation and one that encourages student activities and relations to flourish.

    Thank you for your comments.

  • Oliver

    thanks for standing up to this. why not publish the email?