CJ Editorial: UNC Students (and Due Process) Prevail

September 5, 2013

If your child is a K-12 student in a North Carolina public school and faces an offense that could lead to suspension or expulsion, she has a legal right to seek the help of a lawyer. If she’s enrolled at one of the UNC system campuses, however, and is charged with theft or sexual harassment, until recently she had to represent herself before a tribunal of administrators and had to face her accusers with no legal help.The General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory leveled the scales a bit for students attending the UNC system who are accused of crimes or other breaches of conduct that are not related to academics (such as plagiarism). A provision of House Bill 74, the sweeping regulatory reform measure that McCrory recently signed into law, would give college students and campus organizations the right to legal representation when charged with such offenses.The legislation was promoted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit legal and advocacy group promoting free speech and due process for college students and faculty. The group has undertaken a nationwide crusade against speech codes and other foolhardy attempts at enforcing political correctness, often with great success. By enacting this law, North Carolina became the first U.S. state to provide students at public universities these basic protections.Previously, students and student groups facing complaints that were filed on campus could not hire attorneys to question witnesses or present evidence. "Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment, and even rape," said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley in a press release. "Because the stakes are so high, students should have the benefit of an attorney to ensure the hearing is conducted fairly and by the rules."Campus police rather than local law enforcers have jurisdiction over most offenses that occur on university property. Sexual harassment charges typically are handed over to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights; violations under Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act can jeopardize a school’s federal funding. But the feds often have little concern for the welfare of defendants; FIRE has pointed out a host of instances in which the OCR encouraged universities to disregard the due-process rights of students. (For more, see http://bit.ly/njoRDV.)One exception in the law could be troublesome, however: It does not allow students to use attorneys if they’re charged by the Student Honor Court at UNC-Chapel Hill or other investigations controlled by students rather than campus administrators. It’s possible that the sorts of incidents that drive the PC crowd to distraction — such as the publication of provocative articles, photos, or art in campus newspapers — might be considered "honor code" offenses rather than crimes, again threatening the due-process rights of the accused.UNC administrators already have said they’re worried the new law will make the dispute process more "adversarial," and it will — to the benefit of college students, who do not surrender their constitutional rights when they enter campus grounds.

Cases: University of North Carolina System: Law Guaranteeing Right to Counsel