Earlier this month, Duke students voted to pass the Duke Student Government bill of rights. The bill was meant to create a standard, unifying legislative bedrock for DSG that would create consistent mechanisms by which students could seek redress for rights violations without going to a state or federal court.
However, we think the bill creates more problems than it resolves. Its biggest flaw is that its applicability is extremely unclear. Sophomore Nikolai Doytchinov, DSG vice president for academic affairs, has said that the bill is designed to be enforceable rather than theoretical. If this is true, then the openness of the bill of rights to wildly different judicial interpretation might very well be a problem.
The instrument in which DSG chose to grant these rights—a bill of rights—is especially misleading. The rather romantic concept of a bill of rights implies sweeping, universal granting of rights to all members of a social group or polity. A bill of rights usually serves as a fundamental legislative common denominator that takes precedent before all other legislation in scope. However, this traditional conception does not match with the scope and intention of the DSG bill of rights, which only applies to DSG-recognized student groups and groups that receive Student Organization Finance Committee funding during their SOFC-funded events. The DSG bill of rights does not grant all Duke students the ability to seek redress from DSG for any incident happening anywhere and under any circumstances that may have violated their purported rights.
We think it is perfectly reasonable and responsible for DSG to regulate the actions of student groups to whom it is giving funding. However, this could have been done through more targeted and specific legislation that unites already existing DSG bylaws and SOFC rules that address student rights and discrimination in a more tailored manner. But the DSG bill of rights is not just overblown—it could also be harmful. The vagueness of the language leaves crucial questions unanswered.
Junior Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, gave the following example which only further illustrates this point. Last year, a student threatened to bring a case to the DSG Judiciary claiming that the policy enforced by the University Center for Activities and Events that allowed only recognized student groups to table on the Bryan Center plaza was a violation of his individual right to freedom of speech. Oathout, who is a Chronicle columnist, cited this example to show how a bill of rights would either have prevented such an incident or provided a more streamlined mechanism for addressing the problem. However, not only is UCAE—which does not receive DSG funding—not under the bill’s purview, it also leaves immensely important concepts like freedom of speech open to interpretation by DSG and its judiciary. Oathout’s intentions to enunciate the rights of students are certainly admirable, but it would be better served by a list of more concrete rules that DSG and its student groups must respect in its dealings with students—and not by an expansive and easily distortable bill of rights. We the people applaud the intention behind the DSG bill of rights but not its method.