In the wake of the Title IX scandal at BYU, it came to light that not only was BYU opening an honor code investigation on all who reported that they were raped (regardless of whether any honor code violation was involved in their assault), but also that students may have an honor code investigation file they don’t know about.  It was further brought to light that students can request a copy of their file and can read it.

Brad Levin, who spearheaded the FreeBYU movement [1], petitioned to receive a copy of his Honor Code file although he had never been told that he had been investigated.  He found that there was an 11-page file on him, including an anonymous tip from a “friend” who was concerned that he had been involved with “homosexual ideas” because he published a paper entitled “Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective.”  It was determined that no action would be taken against him as a result of this investigation.

Instructions on how current and former BYU students can obtain a copy of their file can be found here [2].  FERPA rules require the Honor Code Office to comply, with a few caveats:

  • They have 45 days to assemble and send your file.
  • You have to pay for the copies before they will send them.
  • If you live within a “reasonable commute” of campus, they will not provide you copies but will allow you to read your file in a supervised room and take notes.
  • Records older than 7 years may no longer be available.
  • Getting an Honor Code ruling overturned is about as likely as getting gravity overturned.
  • The names of your accusers will be redacted, whereas sullying your name is completely copacetic.

Other rights outlined on the ATHCOE site:

  • The right to stay in your housing.  You cannot be evicted on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or other protected classes, even if you are expelled on the basis of these factors.
  • The right to request corrections to your Honor Code file, have an administrative review if you are suspended, expelled or put on probation, and the right to appeal those decisions.  Good luck on this one.
  • The right to advocate for reform.  However, you may be subject to Honor Code actions (aka retaliation) if you do while currently enrolled.
  • The right to legal representation.  Legal Shield is a low cost option suggested.

I’ve shared before my concern that Honor Code complaints can be a form of sexual harassment due to the culture of sexual repression and the stringent modesty guidelines for women, creating a hostile environment for female students in which they may be unfairly targeted by men whose attentions they find unwelcome.  What does that look like? A whole lot like Mr. Collins from Pride & Prejudice but with the backing of an Honor Code Office when he is spurned. [3]

When a complaint is made, the onus is on the accused to prove their innocence and the anonymity of the informant is always maintained wherever possible.  Why is this so? The underlying assumption is that anyone who is accused must be guilty of something, and that a complainant is acting in good faith. But why assume this? On the contrary, knowing that an Honor Code investigation is a weapon at every person’s disposal and has no consequences for the accuser, why wouldn’t it be used as retaliation against others? Obviously, this kind of abuse is ready made.

In stating that a main motive behind opening an honor code investigation for any Title IX complaint is avoiding false rape accusations, the Honor Code office mistook victims for informants. This is particularly galling since victims are claiming to be harmed whereas informants are generally identifying someone they claim is harmful to the community, often in a theoretical way with no actual victims. Assuming that victims should be accused to curb complaints while protecting the anonymity of informants (who have not been harmed) is bad policy indeed.

It seems ironic that in a church that decries gossip, we sure do love to encourage and reward being a tattle tale.  What is going on in our culture?  To understand the issues associated with informants, I did a little looking into the ethical issues that police must evaluate when pursuing an investigation based on informant testimony.  Why does someone choose to inform on another person?  There are a variety of motivations that can be at play and that could compromise the testimony given:

  • Self-interest.  By far, self-interest has the most varieties and causes a lot of consternation to determine whether the information is credible.  In the case of law enforcement, self-interest might include things the justice system can give the person such as a financial reward, being released from custody for their own crime, reducing their sentence, withdrawn or dismissed charges or being moved to a better incarceration facility.  But there are more personal self-interests that can be a motive:  eliminating rivals, diverting attention from one’s own criminal activity, and revenge or retaliation.  A person may simply like the positive attention that comes with being an informant; they are listened to.
  • Self-preservation.  A person may inform on another person if they wish to be protected from an individual who has threatened them or they fear may harm them.  A person may inform to receive protection.
  • Conscience.  A person may have a desire to work on the side of “right” due to a guilty conscience or otherwise may have a genuine desire to assist in enforcement of the law.

Knowing that these motives can cause the information presented to be unreliable, what do law enforcement officers do to prevent using bad intelligence?  One site gives several valuable guidelines to avoid ethical issues when working with informants.  Taking those guidelines and applying them to an Honor Code context or even a local leader receiving “complaints” from ward members, these seem like appropriate cautions that should be consistently applied:

  1. Remain neutral.  Don’t immediately side with the informant.  Once you begin to construct a theory, your ability to incorporate facts that disagree with your theory is reduced. What is your own motive in relation to this information? Does it trigger any fears or hopes or assumptions in you? Can you set those aside to be impartial?
  2. Evaluate informant motivation.  People rarely come forward without a self-interested motive.  Their motive colors their interpretation of the “facts.”  They are selling you a theory, but this is a buyer’s market. Take your time.
  3. Corroborate information. Don’t address issues that originate solely from an individual complaint where no tangible harm has occurred.  Be very cautious about addressing any complaint where no tangible harm has occurred, regardless of the corroboration.
  4. Don’t reward tattling. Rewards may take many forms and may include simply listening to gossip or agreeing with someone.  Busybodies eat that stuff up with a spoon.  If harm is involved, empathizing is appropriate, without assuming the information is correct.
  5. Don’t commit to outcomes. If you make a promise without gathering corroboration or talking (while remaining neutral) to the accused person, you’ve already compromised your ability to judge accurately.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that tattling always has a motive:

Only rarely are confidential informants upstanding citizens who desire to assist law enforcement for the good of society.

We’ve discussed some of the excesses at BYU, an environment in which young people are more restricted and live within a more structured set of rules than we do as adults. However, this “tattle-tale” culture exists within many of our local congregations also.  It is common for people to report having been released from callings or accused by anonymous ward members of unorthodox beliefs or other “victimless” actions. Missionaries are also encouraged to ensure their fellow missionaries follow the rules.  Given that many church members attended BYU or served missions, it’s not surprising that these policing and informing behaviors flourish in church culture at large. Without checks and balances, though, leader roulette is an ever-present threat.

Now, a few discussion questions:

  • Does the church have a “tattle-friendly” culture or is it roughly the same as all groups of people?  Are younger groups of Mormons more likely to tattle than adults?
  • What would you report a fellow church member for?
    • Only for something that harms another person (e.g. adultery, fraud, domestic abuse) or also for things that are more theoretical harm (e.g. teaching false doctrine, disagreeing with the brethren on Facebook) or for things that are individual agency related (e.g. not having a testimony, drinking coffee or alcohol)?
    • Would you report someone if you had strong suspicions or only if you had certain knowledge?
  • Would you first confront that person or not?  Does it depend on the offense?
  • Has anyone ever tattled on you for something? What was the issue? What happened?
  • Have you ever tattled on someone else? What happened?

Discuss.

[1] The Free BYU Movement petitions church-owned schools to allow students who have either lost their belief in the church or those who have converted to another faith from Mormonism while attending BYU to be eligible to remain at the school in good standing provided they continue to follow the Honor Code guidelines.  Currently, students who do not receive an ecclesiastical endorsement requiring a profession of belief are subject to expulsion.  This encourages students who have lost their faith to lie in order to obtain the required endorsement rather than to lose some of their educational investment in a forced transfer.  While BYU does not object to a student converting to Mormonism while enrolled there, any profession of disbelief by a baptized member can result in a lost endorsement and expulsion.  Thus far, the FreeBYU Movement has been unsuccessful at challenging the school’s accreditation on these grounds.

[2] The ATHCOE project seeks to create Honor Code transparency and accountability.

[3] In the novel, Mr. Collins appeals to Mrs. Bennett to support him, which she readily agrees to do since she doesn’t care much for the happiness of her least favorite daughter, but Mr. Bennett who more rightly judges Mr. Collins’ character and behavior quickly sees through the man and supports his daughter.