Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"From a Former Prosecutor to a UNC Student Prosecutor: An Open Letter"

by Roger Canaff

Editor's note: 
The student-run Honor Court at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill informed Landen Gambill last week that it’s charging her with violation of the Honor Code under a statute prohibiting “Disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another…. so as to adversely affect their academic pursuits, opportunities for university employment, participation in university-sponsored extracurricular activities, or opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University Life.”

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Ms. Elizabeth Ireland
Student Attorney General, Graduate and Professional Schools
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dear Ms. Ireland:

First, I commend you on the tough work you do in order to help maintain an atmosphere of integrity, civility and safety at UNC Chapel Hill, my own alma mater in terms of the law degree that has graciously shaped my professional life. Your job is not an easy one, and I’d guess it seems even less so in light of your apparent (now publicized) decision to bring charges against Landen Gambill for a violation of UNC Honor Code IIC, 1.c.

Second, I have no intention of questioning your decision based on the evidence you have before you, simply because I do not have it before me. No prosecutor should be taken to task by an outsider who lacks the same access to information that she has.

I do, however, have your Code before me, the one I presume you are sworn to uphold and from which you form specific charges addressing clearly proscribed conduct. You have charged Ms. Gambill with:

“Disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another” regarding that person’s opportunities broadly as a member of the UNC community.

Again, without making assumptions about what you know, this appears to be in response to Ms. Gambill’s public reflections on the abuse she reported against an intimate partner last year; presumably you suspect that Ms. Gambill's actions amount to violative behavior toward another student. Yet a close friend of Ms. Gambill’s claims confidently (I’ve seen nothing to contradict her) that 1) Gambill has never publicly named the man she alleges assaulted her, and 2) the bulk of her protestations involve not what he did but how she was treated by the Honor Court process itself.

I can only assume you either know something I don’t, or that you believe with the appropriate level of certainty that Landen Gambill is yet responsible for the Honor Code violation you’ve drawn up. In any event, I’d ask you to consider two things:

First, prosecutorial decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. Even if you believe Gambill has somehow “abused, disparaged or otherwise interfered” with her former partner to an extent that somehow violates your Code, is she really an appropriate person to target? Admittedly, I have a bias: I believe Gambill told the truth to the Honor Court last year and that she was seriously if unintentionally mishandled. But even if I was less convinced on either issue, I fail to see how your resources and goodwill are well spent with this prosecution. Understanding that you are rightfully independent of the administration in terms of your charging decisions, this one seems only to be drawing more negative attention to a university that, by all appearances, would be well advised to focus less on students struggling to heal and more on those who are harming them.

Second, just as I’d ask you to consider your case against Gambill in the context of other factors, I’d ask you to carefully consider the entire section under which you’ve charged her. The governing language of IIC 1.c is found in IIC:

“It shall be the responsibility of every refrain from conduct that impairs or may impair the right of all members of the University community to learn and thrive in a safe and respectful environment; or the capacity of University and associated personnel to perform their duties, manage resources, protect the safety and welfare of members of the University community, and maintain the integrity of the University.”

Landen Gambill is a credible victim of both devastating abuse and a flawed system of adjudication now rightfully removed from consideration of her type of complaint. The abuse she alleges on your campus is exactly the kind of behavior that impairs rights, threatens safety, mocks respect, and curtails profoundly the capacity of everyone at UNC to learn and grow to her highest potential. By her efforts to seek redress, both personal and in terms of the University response, it is Gambill who is seeking to uphold integrity here, Ms. Ireland. Punishing her on dubious or hyper-technical grounds renders your process absurd, cruel, and feckless."

Roger Canaff

Legal Expert, Child Protection and Special Victims Advocate. Author, Public

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your input. I am a law student at UNC, as well, and just had a quick couple questions for you. 1) "Devastating Abuse"...wasn't the ex-bf found not guilty by honor court? While not guilty isn't the same as innocent, she could have made up the entire rape complaint for all we know. Could you link us towards where it was proven that some abuse did occur? Again, we don't know any facts 2) Though the ex-bf wasn't directly named, didn't she constructively name him by labeling her offender as her "ex-bf", which limited the number of individuals it could be? How do we know she hasn't been disparaging him privately to his friends, her friends and others on campus? Again, we don't know the facts.

    If we don't know the answer to either of those two questions, then I think whoever brought this complaint (probably the ex-bf) is certainly entitled to a hearing. All that needs to be shown is at least a 33% chance of guilt to bring an honor court hearing, and based on what's been said publicly, that seems possible. I'm confused why you're so adamant that Ms. Ireland drop charges when there are so little facts known to us.

    Look forward to your response.


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