(Luke Whelan and Olivia Noble contributed to this post)
Yesterday afternoon, the Middlebury Community Judicial Board (CJB) heard the case of the five students who call themselves the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee, who are responsible for sending out the satirical (or fraudulent, according to some) press release and subsequent “coming clean” letter in October. After an intense six hours of statements, questioning, witness testimony and character references, then many more hours deliberating after the hearing, the CJB came out with a verdict late last night. They found the students guilty of violating the Community Standard of communicating with honesty and integrity in the College Handbook, and the “ethical and law-abiding behavior” clause in the Library and Information Services (LIS) policy. However, their sentence is a reprimand-– not official college discipline. According to the DLWC website, “[the CJB] said this is mostly due to respect for individuals who might have been offended by our actions or to whom our actions were a nuisance.” Furthermore, the CJB did not find the five students guilty of violating the “respect for others” clause in LIS policy or for sending an unauthorized all-student email.
The College, represented by Dean of the College Shirley Collado and Dean of LIS Michael Roy, charged the five students with a number of college handbook and LIS policy violations after conducting a lengthy investigation. These charges were discussed at length throughout the hearing. For more information about Middlebury’s judicial board hearing process check this out.
Maya Goldberg-Safir ‘12.5 interviewed students after the trial (but before the verdict was out) about what they thought of the hearing. Dana, the largest auditorium on campus with 272 seats, was filled to capacity.
Deception versus Satire
The hearing quickly centered on a few key themes. One of them was the fine line between deception and satire or political theater. Dean of the College Shirley Collado and LIS director Michael Roy argued that the press release was deceptive because of the considerable effort that went into making the press release look like it came from the College. In her opening statement, Dean Collado said,“Middlebury is about creating a marketplace of ideas…free exchange of speech should be conducted with honesty…not deception…[the press release] was deceptive and fraudulent.” Director of Public Affairs Sarah Ray said in her testimony as one of four witnesses, “Everything about it was fake, but a reporter could easily see it and think it was real.”
The students, on the other hand, said, “our intention was never to deceive the Middlebury community or to communicate a falsity, but rather to shine a light on the honest truth about our endowment.” The students recognized that some individuals may have been confused about the veracity of the press release during the few days before the “coming clean” letter was posted. But the intention, they said, was to achieve satirical effect, and some degree of initial believability was necessary. They mentioned that they consulted the Yes Men, who have carried out similar political satire on a national scale, about how best to achieve that satirical effect. Furthermore, one student pointed out the “trope” of this generation is conveying messages through satire, for example on the Onion, the Daily Show or the Colbert Report (which also get mistaken as real news organizations). Their action was in the spirit of using a creative method shown to be powerful in our culture to encourage the community to confront and discuss an issue they see as extremely urgent.
The Dean Collado also argued that by failing to sign the press release with their own names, the students were not standing by their actions. She thought there was a lack of honesty and accountability, which violated handbook policy.
The students stressed that this action had to be considered as comprising two parts: the initial press release and the subsequent “coming clean” letter. They brought up the point that the two parts of the action were conceived of and written together (which they proved through email evidence), and that they always intended to release the “coming clean” letter. In this letter, the students believed they held themselves fully accountable and responsible for everything they did. One of the students said, “we believe very strongly in accountability, that’s why we signed our names on the coming clean letter, that’s why we are here today.”
Deans Collado and Roy countered that many better ways to address important issues like divestment exist on our campus. She believed this particular action was a public nuisance and caused significant confusion that necessitated time and energy to address during a critical time in the College’s history (hosting His Holiness the Dalai Lama).
Sarah Ray went into detail in her testimony about how it affected her job and all of the extra work she and her colleagues in the Office of Communications had to put into dealing with the fallout of the press release. This work included hours of communicating with the outside media and other confused people. Collado also cited Administrative Program Coordinator for the Chaplain’s Office Ellen McKay, who was quoted out of context in the press release, and who submitted a letter as part of the evidence expressing her resentment toward being associated with the fraudulent press release without her permission, despite the fact she agreed with the principles behind divestment.
The students said in their opening statement, “Any nuisance that our press release created has been superseded by the positive platform for dialogue that it created. If there are people who have been inconvenienced or harmed by our action, we would be very interested in hearing from them personally.” They also believed that because it came from a Gmail account, used an old letterhead and a name (Tim Shornak) that did not exist in the Office of Communications, and did not link to the Office of Communication’s Newsroom as is customary (and instead attached it), a reasonably perceptive person, especially in the press, could easily figure out it was fake. Also, Tim Spears sent out an all-school email the next day saying the press release was fraudulent, which reached arguably more people than the actual press release, which was sent to two thirds of the student body, some members of the faculty and administration, and around 150 members of the outside press (only one apparently reported it as news).
The ‘urgency of now’
The students frequently turned to the discussion of justifying the means of their action with the urgency of the issue of divestment. They passionately addressed the issue of ethical investing, and incorporated into their argument personal stories and experiences with injustice around the world caused by companies Middlebury is likely invested in. Many of the members recounted their experience with activism and with Socially Responsible Investment at Middlebury, and expressed that the progress made in more formal channels of dealing with the issue of divestment has been so insignificant that they believed other means had to be considered. They stood by their method’s effectiveness in sparking awareness and dialogue in the community in the past weeks. Two witnesses, students Barrett Smith ’13 and Anna Shireman-Grabowski ‘15.5, attested to the effectiveness of the method in promoting awareness and conversation among friends and students they encountered in their leadership roles.
Collado reemphasized that the complainant’s issue with these actions was not the message, but the method that the students used to express themselves. She thought the confusion surrounding their method and the negative impact it had on many members of the community shutdown dialogue rather than opening it up.
Overly Enforcing the Rules?
The five students also brought up other instances in which some of the same policies were violated, for example the April Fools Day issue of the Campus, in which satirical articles are written that appear as fact in the paper. They also said, “Please remember that last year dozens of unwarranted and unapproved all emails from students participating in ‘The Hunt’ filled our inboxes without any disciplinary implications. Now, because the content of our email challenged the status quo, the administration has chosen to take selectively repressive judicial action.”
Collado countered that both the Hunt and the Campus were part of organizations that the administration could go to right away to hold accountable. She maintained that their investigation and charges have nothing to do with the action challenging the status quo or any other part of their message.
Christian A. Johnson Professor of Music and Middlebry alumnus Peter Hamlin, who served as a witness, repeatedly called the administration’s handling of the fake press release a huge “overreaction” in his testimony. He pointed out the danger of enforcing rules too strictly and controlling the way messages are expressed in a community like Middlebury, which can infringe on freedom of speech and healthy discourse. He said the spirit of the college shouldn’t be to repress, but to find ways to allow for students to creatively express themselves and engage in dialogue. He said that while he was a student at Middlebury in the 1970s, the latter was how the administration handled different kinds protests and activism, which occurred frequently back then– the administration rarely carried out drastic punishment.
The judicial board was exhaustive in their questioning and gathering of information, ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to speak and have questions answered. It was a rare occasion to see students, staff, faculty and administrators working together, and the student members of the CJB admirably pulled their weight and showed leadership on the board during many parts of the hearing. Many moments over the course of the evening were tense and verged on hostile, but in general the hearing was conducted in a civil manner. In the end, the CJB decided although they did violate some college policies, official college discipline would not be taken.