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Amendment to 'Guide to Pride' tackles defamatory speech

Amendment to 'Guide to Pride' tackles defamatory speech

Photo courtesy of Hofstra University

The “Guide to Pride” was updated for the 2018-19 academic year to include new Code of Conduct standards on the topic of defamation. 

The school now lists defamation as a breach in the Code of Conduct. The “Guide to Pride” describes the term as “knowingly communicating false information about a member of the University community to a third party, including verbally or through electronic means (online), which exposes the member of the University community to possible hatred, contempt, ridicule, loss of good will, or loss of reputation as a result of this information.”  

When 50 students were asked whether they had ever read the “Guide to Pride,” 10 said they had read it at some point during their academic career at Hofstra. Because of this, most students who were questioned were unaware of the change. 

Those who were aware of the change have varied opinions about it.

“I think it’s a response to the Jefferson protest and some of the organizers of the Jefferson protest,” said Lydia Oh, a junior film studies and production major. “It’s a direct attack on them.”

“An educational institution relies on trust as a founding principal, and you undermine that when you say false things about a student or a professor or anyone,” said Chris Kozlow, a sophomore political science major. “You can’t undermine an educational institution, especially when everyone else’s education is at stake.”

Michelle Boo, a junior psychology major, was asked if she feels that the update to the Code of Conduct was a response to the protest. Boo said, “It very much is, because it talks about defamation and that’s basically what they said about the Jefferson protest ... It was like defamation, especially towards certain staff members.”

The Office of Student Affairs, when reached for comment about the update, said, “The conduct described this year under the heading ‘defamation’ has always been included in the ‘Guide to Pride,’ but most recently in a different section (Freedom From Discrimination). The University clarified the clause and refined the language describing the conduct to reflect evolving technology and platforms.” 

The Office of Student Affairs also said, “Free speech is a cornerstone of the academic enterprise; and as such is a value we at Hofstra hold as one of our core beliefs. False or defamatory speech is prohibited through not only our code of conduct but also by law as damaging and dangerous.”

When asked about the accessibility of older versions of the guide, the Office of Student Affairs said that the “digital cop[ies have] been removed” and are therefore no longer available for students to download online. According to the Office of Student Affairs, students can get information from last year’s version “if you know anyone who has their ‘Living Factor’ from last academic year.”

Some students feel that it was a response to the Jefferson Has Gotta Go! campaign and allegations made by political science Professor Richard Himelfarb that Ja’Loni Owens, an organizer of the campaign, was tweeting defamatory information about him. 

Last semester, The Chronicle published a story of an accusation against Owens citing defamation in the wake of a tweet about Himelfarb. Owens posted, “Hi ya’ll. Just a reminder that Dr. Richard Himelfarb has been heard saying the n-word, stating that the children of immigrants do not deserve rights in the US (re: DACA) and a host of other distasteful and blatantly offensive remarks. Faculty are aware, which means so are administrators!”

Himelfarb issued a formal complaint, and Owens was charged with violating the Infringement of Rights policy in the Code of Conduct. Himelfarb said that he has never said the racial slur and that Owens was dishonest in their tweet. 

“A lot of the reason students are taking to social media or using emails to talk about professors is just because they’re reporting through deans at the school or faculty and nothing’s getting done,” Owens said. “We feel like the only thing we can do is tweet, ‘Hey this professor is going to be at this event’ or, ‘Hey don’t take this class.’”

When reached for comment, Himelfarb said, “All I know is that there was a judicial proceeding in May. I testified and left and was never informed about it after. Nobody ever got back to me to tell me what the verdict was or what, if anything, was going to happen.” 

Himelfarb confirmed that he was only made aware of the update in the “Guide to Pride” during his interview with The Chronicle. 

“The Office of the Student Affairs put me through an opaque process,” he said. When asked if staff are made aware of changes in the “Guide to Pride,” the Office of Student Affairs did not comment on the matter.

Vague defamation policies are not uncommon for colleges in the area. Stony Brook University, a public school in the State University of New York system, has a Code of Student Responsibility which includes the rule that, “No student shall give false or misleading information that could damage or discredit another.” There is no reference to University officials in the text.

Adelphi University, a private university in Garden City, does not have a defamation policy in its Code of Conduct, but the document states that, “Other forms of behavior considered improper through the application of this Code but not specifically listed herein are also prohibited and subject to the procedures outlined in this Code.”

This update is in the most recent version of the “Guide to Pride” and applies to all Hofstra students for this academic year.

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