As a student at Brigham Young University, Sidney Draughon committed two violations of the school’s honor code, which prohibits everything from sexual activity to drinking coffee. First, officials faulted her for wearing clothing that they deemed indecent in a vacation photograph. Then, in December of her senior year, an ex-boyfriend confessed that the two had engaged in “sexual touching,” which led officials to put Ms. Draughon on probation, preventing her from graduating on time.
Those experiences inspired Ms. Draughon, after she had received her diploma last summer, to start a social media account sharing her concerns. “It was so hurtful, and I felt so alone,” she said. “I kept thinking someone has to feel the same way.”
Her effort has attracted many others with similar stories and grown into campuswide concern about the risks of the honor code being “weaponized” against students. At a sit-in last week and a large demonstration Friday on the Provo, Utah, campus, students called for changes to the system.
The very public and rare push comes as part of a broader effort within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university, to balance doctrine with the more mainstream views of many of its younger members. It comes, too, on the heels of a decision earlier this month to allow children of same-sex couples to be baptized, reversing a contentious 2015 policy that declared church members in same-sex marriages were apostates and subject to excommunication — a major move that signaled attempts by the church to heal rifts within its ranks.
Empowered by social media and galvanized by national conversations around privacy, integrity and the #MeToo movement, the activism fueling changes in the church represents a cultural shift among Latter-day Saints, said Patrick Mason, the chairman of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University.
“This is a generation that feels that their voices matter, and they’re not always going to defer to authority,” said Mr. Mason. “They’re getting wins in the broader culture, and we’re seeing L.D.S. leaders are not immune. In fact, the church is responding to the concerns of its members. Authority matters in the faith, but community matters, too.”
Ms. Draughon, 24, kept her concerns about the honor code quiet until she had left school, but now her Honor Code Stories account on Instagram has attracted more than 34,000 followers and generated nearly 200 tales of punishment meted out by the office charged with enforcing the code.
“Nobody talks about the Honor Code Office on campus because they’re terrified,” Ms. Draughon said. “The code has been weaponized. That’s not the culture you need at a religious university.”
Every student at Brigham Young must sign the school’s honor code to enroll in classes. The morality contract prohibits — and punishes — violations that include immodest attire, premarital sexual activity, beards, and the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and coffee.
Many students defended the code itself and said it’s one of the reasons they decided to attend B.Y.U. But they also said the system ought to be more forgiving.
Carri Jenkins, a university spokeswoman, said the school was aware of the honor code discussions online. “These messages are leading to constructive dialogue between students and the leadership of the Honor Code Office,” she said in an emailed statement.
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This is not the first time the university has faced criticism for how the code is enforced. After Brigham Young drew outrage for punishing sexual assault victims who were found to have violated the honor code, the school implemented a new “amnesty” policy in 2017, granting confidentiality to victims and ending the practice of punishments for related infractions, like drinking or entering a bedroom belonging to a member of the opposite sex.
According to the Honor Code Office, all credible violations of the code are investigated, a process that includes university staff members reviewing evidence and speaking with witnesses. During the inquiry, an employee interviews the accused student, who is expected to respond to the allegation, preferably in writing. If the student is found to have committed the violation, penalties can range from a warning to suspension or expulsion.
Punishments are not standardized, the university said, but instead are based on individual judgment calls and reviewed by a committee.
Students said other consequences of violating the code may include mandatory religious worship, hours of community service and the withholding of diplomas, regardless of academic standing.
Support for change extends beyond campus and into the broader Mormon community. More than 22,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the code be updated, and Mormon supporters have rallied around the symbol “Y?,” a twist on the university logo, that is worn on clothes and has been posted on social media.
On Instagram, students and graduates have shared stories of being suspended or expelled for violations such as kissing a date good night or wearing a two-piece swimsuit.
One young man, according to his sibling, killed himself less than two months after he was expelled on grounds that he had engaged in sexual acts with a former girlfriend. Another student said she overdosed on pills after she was punished for revealing she had been sexually assaulted. A gay student said he was asked explicit questions about his sexuality and sentenced to nine months probation after he spent the night at a woman’s apartment.
For her final violation, Ms. Draughon said an Honor Code Office investigator called while she was in Atlanta visiting her family for the holidays. The administrator wanted to know graphic details about a months-old intimate encounter with her ex-boyfriend, who had reportedly told the school they had broken the rules on sexual touching.
“She asked things like, was it over or under the bra, and where exactly did you touch him and for how many seconds,” Ms. Draughon said. Her mother, who was listening to the conversation on speaker, told her to hang up, but Ms. Draughon refused.
“I need to graduate,” she recalled telling her mother, “and if I don’t answer, I’ll lose everything.”
Students are expected to report themselves and others to the Honor Code Office. But until recently, few appeared to know how its enforcers investigated infractions, or that those who had undergone interrogations felt traumatized by the experience.
Until he read the honor code stories on Instagram, Keaton Hill, 23, a junior at Brigham Young, said he had little understanding of just how it had impacted his fellow students. He does not want the code to be abolished, but he noted that it is far stricter than the standards required to be a fully faithful member of the church. Its enforcers should recognize that young people make mistakes and prioritize atonement, he said.
“We sign this document and agree to the terms,” he said, “but we all fall short from the glory of God.”
A leader in Brigham Young’s student Democrats group who spent two years as a missionary in Virginia, Mr. Hill got involved this month with Restore Honor B.Y.U., the campus movement campaigning for reform. He attended a sit-in outside the student center last week, which attracted about 300 people, and has participated in discussions with Honor Code Office officials.
The group wants more transparency and protections for students, and it has proposed a number of specific changes to ensure that the accused are treated fairly. Among their demands, the students want to bar the reporting of trivial offenses, like cursing or watching R-rated movies, a practice that some said fosters a culture of spite.
Other proposals include the creation of a student advocacy group that could provide information about Honor Code Office proceedings, allowing accused students to bring in a trusted third party, and changing the code’s prohibition of “homosexual behavior” to “homosexual activity,” so gay students are not penalized simply for their sexuality.
Many students pushing for change said they see it as a way to align the code — and the church — with their larger goals of social justice, particularly on the rights of sexual minorities.
“Currently at school, we finally said it’s O.K. for you to be gay, as long as you don’t have a relationship. I think that’s morally repugnant,” said Grant Frazier, 18, a freshman involved with Restore Honor B.Y.U. “Threatening a student’s academic future because they are having a healthy relationship with someone they’re attracted to is wrong.”
Although the church’s recent decision to allow the children of L.G.B.T. parents to be baptized stopped short of ending its teaching that acting on same-sex attraction is sinful, the move was praised by its younger members and galvanized their efforts to push for change on B.Y.U.’s campus, which is attended by about 30,000 faithful students.
School officials have been receptive to the group’s concerns, Mr. Hill said.
“We’re going to be respectful,” he said of the students’ discussions with university officials about the honor code. “But we’re not really going to bend on anything.”
Sheli Paige Frank contributed reporting.