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Intent and the "Reasonable Person" Standard

Message about Intent

Students and faculty often ask about the issue of intent. In particular, they usually want to know if a careless act can be considered a violation of the Honor Code. The answer is "yes," depending on context and other circumstances.

The governing standard on intent (and the reasoning for it) was set forth in a 1977 Opinion by the Stanford Judicial Council, which was the student-faculty adjudicating body for contested and/or precedent-setting cases under the former Legislative and Judicial Charter of 1968. A copy of this Opinion—see pertinent excerpts of it below (under "a statement adopted by the Board on Judicial Affairs")—is given to all Judicial Panel Pool members as part of their training.

A Judicial Advisor would be happy to discuss with you how the issue of intent may impact your specific situation, as well as to describe in more detail how panelists under the present Student Judicial Charter of 1997 have dealt with this issue. We also encourage you to talk with a Judicial Counselor about how best to prepare your case, particularly if you are claiming lack of intent. If you want the names of available Judicial Counselors, please call or email a Judicial Advisor.

Additional Information

Statement Adopted by the Board on Judicial Affairs on the “Reasonable Person” Standard

The Board on Judicial Affairs has reviewed in pertinent part a 1977 Opinion by the Stanford Judicial Council. The SJC was the student-faculty adjudicating body for contested and/or precedent-setting cases under the predecessor to the current Student Judicial Charter of 1997 (which was known as the Legislative and Judicial Charter of 1968). The pertinent excerpts read:

"...The present case was referred to the SJC by the Dean of Student Affairs because he felt that, should he decide the matter, there was a reasonable chance that he could find an absence of guile, a knowing disregard of examination instructions yet an absence of intent to deceive. The Council was asked to face an issue never before addressed: the level of intent required to violate the Honor Code....

The defendants argue that only a willful violation of the Code can constitute an infraction. They contend that if they did not know at the time that their activities amounted to unpermitted aid, they cannot be guilty. We disagree. We conclude that a violation of the Honor Code does occur when persons give or receive aid on an examination under circumstances in which a reasonable person should have known that such aid was not permitted by the Honor Code.

We stress that the 'reasonable person' category articulated is a narrow and exceptional one. In Honor Code cases, if the defendant admits to or is proven to have engaged in giving or receiving unpermitted aid, this behavior should be presumed to be the product of conscious intent.... What we suggest, ...is that even where the defendants are able to demonstrate that they did not willfully intend to violate the Honor Code, they are still liable if a reasonable person in their situation should have been aware that their activities were wrong...."

The Board hereby:

  • RESOLVES, that, even in cases where a Judicial Panel finds that an accused student did not willfully intend to violate the Honor Code, such student still does violate the Honor Code if a reasonable person in his/her situation should have been aware that his/her activities were wrong.
  • RESOLVES FURTHER, that, regardless of the accused student’s intent, it is his/her responsibility to follow the rules set forth by the instructor and/or under the Honor Code whenever he/she submits academic work.
  • RESOLVES FINALLY, that, in submitting academic work even a student’s “mistakes” and “accidents” are to be included as part of his/her responsibility to be aware of activities that are wrong and violate the Honor Code.

(Approved and adopted, May 8, 2003)