You may remember that Landen Gambill, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina, was brought up on Honor Court charges by another student who allegedly raped her. The reason? By speaking out about what she says happened to her, she reportedly created an intimidating environment for her ex-boyfriend. Speaking as a proud Carolina alumnus (class of 2000), this case can only be described as a travesty. The assistant student attorney general who filed this case apparently forgot two things. One, while the Honor Court is student-run, due to Carolina's status as a state school it is legally an agent of the state. Two, this is a textbook SLAPP that could only serve to leave a black mark on the school. Gambill responded by filing a federal civil rights complaint, alleging officials at Carolina were trying to discredit her.
Well, this travesty is finally over. Late yesterday, in what is likely one of his last major decisions before leaving in July, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that after reading the results of an outside review of Gambill's retaliation claim, he decided to drop the case against her on constitutional grounds.
The independent investigator, Barbara Lee, a Rutgers University professor and expert on sexual harassment grievances, said in a report that there was no evidence of retaliation by the university. The Honor Court is entirely run by students, and the decision to go forward with the charge was made by a student attorney general.Specifically, Gambill was charged with violating a provision of the Code of Student Conduct that prohibits "disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes" with another student's studies. While this provision was intended to deal with harassment, apparently Lee felt it was so vague that it could easily be used to silence protected speech. In other words, Lee saw this case for what it really was--a SLAPP.
Still, Lee found that the Honor Code provision under which Gambill was charged was vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. In a message to the campus, Thorp wrote that Lee’s review “brought into sharp focus concerns about this particular Honor Code provision” because of free speech issues.
University officials then decided that no student should be charged with violating the provision until it was reviewed by a campus Committee on Student Conduct. Further, Thorp wrote, all current cases stemming from violations of the provision, including Gambill’s, would be dismissed.
Lee also felt that the Honor Court system as a whole has some pretty significant flaws.
“Although I do not believe that the University itself retaliated against the female student through the male student’s attempt to silence her by charging her with an Honor Code violation, I do believe that the Honor Court system is flawed because of the University’s lack of accountability for a student-dominated process,” Lee wrote in a May 9 report, a copy of which was obtained by The News & Observer. “This particular incident – the Honor Code charge and the ensuing allegations of ‘revictimizing’ an alleged sexual assault victim – has exposed the problems inherent in a student-led system over which administrators and faculty have very little control.”Good points all around. There's something fundamentally wrong when a case this explosive is allowed to go forward without any sort of review. It would seem to me that in any conduct-related case where a student could potentially face suspension or expulsion, at a minimum the case would need to be personally reviewed by the student attorney general before being allowed to go any further. It's just common sense to prevent embarrassment to Carolina and to protect students' rights. It's sad that it took a travesty like this to highlight the need for review.
Gambill had to withdraw from school in March due to the stress of the case. To put it mildly, she's glad this case isn't hanging over her. Hopefully, the next step will be a public apology from the assistant student attorney general who let this go forward in the first place.