Are UVA Law's gossip headlines self-inflicted?

In a fundraising letter for the UVA School of Law’s $150 million capital campaign, Dean Paul Mahoney singled out the school’s “sense of community.” Following the December 7 arrest of 25-year-old law student Joshua Gomes, suspected by campus police of illicitly entering Carruthers Hall “to steal official transcript paper,” that community culture faces an outside threat.

“As an alum, a lot of what I’m getting is, ‘Oh my God, the law school has gone crazy,’” said one UVA Law graduate who asked for anonymity amidst students’ relative silence on the issue. “This is so different from the image that UVA has worked so hard to cultivate over the years.”

UVA Police suspect that law student Joshua Peter Gomes broke into Carruthers Hall to steal school transcripts. (Photo Courtesy of UVA Police)

Gomes was arrested in the early morning outside of Carruthers and faces a January 12 preliminary hearing. The day before Gomes was arrested, UVA police reportedly inspected Carruthers Hall for signs of a breaking and entering. Inside, they located a hidden video camera with images that allegedly identify Gomes.

The next day, Gomes was arrested; subsequent searches of his home and car turned up bolt cutters, transcript papers, and a box for a coathook camera. A call to Dean Paul Mahoney was forwarded to the school’s director of communications, who did not confirm Gomes’ status at the university by press time.

What Gomes was doing with the camera is anybody’s best guess until the trial, but Above The Law, a website that has tracked news of Gomes’ arrest, highlighted a comment from someone identified as a UVA student, who suggested that Gomes already had obtained transcript paper before his arrest.

The site’s editor, Elie Mystal, quipped that Gomes “could have just chilled out and not worried and made up whatever grades he wanted to after it was over.” Then, linking to another recent story, he concluded: “UVA law students are good at making stuff up.”
Cheap shot? Maybe, but Gomes wasn’t the only UVA law student to make headlines this year.

In April, Johnathan Perkins wrote a letter to the Virginia Law Weekly* and falsely claimed he was mistreated by UVA Police officers. His misallegation created a debate about whether Perkins should face an Honor Code trial and possible expulsion. While UVA Honor Code trials are confidential, a LinkedIn profile with Perkins’ name says he graduated from UVA and works as a legal intern at a Pennsylvania law firm, which means Perkins was either found innocent or did not face a school jury.

In May, Daniel Watkins, a second-year law student from Fredericksburg, was charged with stalking and assaulting an ex-girlfriend. By August, however, an Albemarle judge deemed the evidence against Watkins to be insubstantial, and threw the charges out.

Out of court, however, does not mean out of mind. In media reports here and elsewhere, Gomes is seen as the latest UVA Law student accused of wrongdoing. In response, according to the same anonymous UVA Law graduate, classmates may distance themselves from accused students. Or, they might turn informant and pass a classmate’s story along.
“People expect more solidarity than this,” said the student. But “whenever something bad happens, it ends up on Above The Law.” is one of four blogs operated by New York-based Breaking Media LLC. The website, which “provides news and gossip about the profession’s most colorful personalities and powerful institutions,” averages 5 million page views per month, according to a June blog post. Mystal told C-VILLE that, while some UVA students seem to think the website has it in for them, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The reason why UVA pops up a lot in our stories is because crazy, funny stuff happens at UVA,” said Mystal. If incidents like Perkins’ fabrication or Gomes’ breaking and entering charges surfaced at another school, he added, then “we’d write about that school.”
In its UVA coverage, Above The Law makes occasional jokes about students’ “popped collars,” a comment on a sort of aesthetic bravado that one also might hear around UVA Grounds.

However, Mystal notes that the UVA Law School “does great when it comes to clerkship acceptances, on level with Harvard or Yale. So it’s not completely false bravado.”
Here’s how bravado, gossip and fact come together: One of the blog’s earliest UVA stories identifies four clerks selected by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, including a former UVA student. The post asked readers with knowledge of the clerks to contact the website to contribute information to a collection of profiles.

The blog obtained a picture of the UVA student, but also testimonials that he “attended the tractor pull at the Nebraska State Fair” and was “one of those annoying former high school cross-country runners, whose competitiveness compels him to sprint the last 50 yards of every seemingly leisurely run.”

Mystal told C-VILLE that most of Above The Law’s stories originate from tips submitted via the blog’s website or a mobile phone line that takes text messages. Those stories also create feedback loops, said Mystal: Students learn that their college has been covered, and then contribute more tips.

This year, few schools rivaled UVA for coverage.
“When we post about UVA, there’s a bigger pop than pretty much any school we post about, except for the New York schools, Harvard, and Yale,” said Mystal. He said that neither Perkins, Watkins, nor Gomes have contacted the site about its coverage.
“Two days later, nobody remembers it,” said Mystal. “These people’s lives are not ruined because something snarky was written about them.”­

* An earlier version of this story reported that Johnathan Perkins wrote a letter detailing his false accusation of police misconduct to the Virginia Law Review. It was actually the Virginia Law Weekly that received and published that letter. The Virginia Law Review is an academic journal that publishes legal scholarship.

See the letter here.


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