6 Tips To Protect Your Rights in College

By September 16, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I emphasized the importance of knowing your free speech and due process rights on campus. This will give you a leg up when you are facing charges on campus, but it will not always be enough. College administrators frequently violate their own policies and procedures. Even when you have the facts and the First Amendment on your side, you may run afoul of campus authorities and find yourself in the jaws of your college’s judicial processes. Here are some of the key things you can do.

1. Document everything. In this day and age, many of your most important communications will take place over email. This works to your benefit. Just take a look through the documentation on any of FIRE’s numerous cases and you’ll see that, quite often, the one or two key facts that make a case easy to win will be in one of those simple communications. Whenever a student contacts us with a case, my first question just about every time is, "What documentation do you have?" Even if you don’t see its significance, hold on to it.

2. Get it on the record. Quite often, there will be no written documentation of a particular incident, and the key details will reside in live conversations between you and another student or administrator. For example, you might be distributing flyers for your group’s event when an administrator stops you and tells you you’re not allowed to do so. Since the facts may be in dispute, we suggest that you write to the other party to the conversation, provide your recollection of the incident, avoid editorializing about it, and ask the other party to make any corrections to your account and what each person said.

Give the other party a deadline to respond. We often suggest three business days. Note in your letter that if you receive no response, your understanding will be assumed to be correct. Even if an administrator denies your account but refuses to provide a correction, getting the conversation on paper will be useful.

3. Don’t be afraid to go straight to the top. If you’re getting the runaround from a lower-level administrator who isn’t correcting a violation of your rights, don’t be afraid to bring in their boss. Or their boss’ boss. Or, if it seems necessary, the president. Exposing the situation to someone’s superiors puts the person on notice that you are standing up for your rights, and it has a funny way of inspiring a low-level or mid-level administrator to get his or her act together pronto.

4. Recognize the power of bad publicity. We say all the time here at FIRE that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," and when it comes to serious violations of student rights, colleges cannot justify in public what they try to get away with in private. If you’re getting nowhere with some administrative unit, the people involved might just have a change of heart when they’re reading about their failures in the editorial pages. Many student and local reporters love to cover stories of rights violations on campus.

5. Before disciplinary hearings, learn the process. Colleges are morally and often legally obligated to follow their own stated procedures and honor their promises. If you are summoned to a hearing or even just a disciplinary meeting for violating a school policy, review your student handbook to learn how it all works. Are you allowed to have an attorney, advisor, or other witness present, and are they allowed to participate in the hearing? What documentation must the university provide you beforehand (such as, one would think, the evidence against you), or afterward (such as a recording or transcript)? How much time are you given to prepare for the hearing? If you’re unsure, ask the administration (or FIRE). If you think a certain right would be beneficial or improve fairness but it is not specifically granted, it can’t hurt to ask.

Beware: A common feature of university disciplinary systems is the "informal" hearing (if they even call it a hearing), which might consist of just you and a dean in conversation. Many universities have both informal and formal processes. Sometimes students can request one or the other, and universities might shift to a formal hearing if the informal track fails. If you find yourself facing an "informal" meeting, remember that you might still face serious discipline but receive few of the due process protections you would get in a formal hearing. You might get pressured to accept punishment because, the dean may say, the formal hearing could end up worse for you. For these reasons, make sure that you can make and keep a record of the meeting, either with an audio recording or at least your own notes. Ask if you can bring an observer for everyone’s protection.

You can find much more on this subject in FIRE’s Guide to Due Process and Fair Procedure on Campus.

6. Don’t wait—contact FIRE. Don’t wait until you’ve been found responsible for violating campus policies before asking FIRE for help. We have more than a decade of experience defending student rights, and we have won or helped to resolve hundreds of cases involving students. We stand ready to help students whose rights have been violated by their colleges, and we know where to refer students whose cases are outside of our mission. It’s usually far better to get us involved sooner rather than later. If you wish to contact FIRE regarding a potential violation of your rights, I encourage you to submit a case to FIRE through our website.