Harvey in ‘The FIRE Quarterly’ on Emerson College

By February 21, 2008

Torch followers should be sure to read FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate’s column in last month’s FIRE Quarterly on a recent episode at Emerson College in Boston.

In the "From the Board of Directors" segment of the January 9, 2008, issue, Harvey discusses what happened when Emerson students discovered that the 2007–2008 edition of the Student Handbook was completely lacking a list of student rights, leaving only a section entitled "Statement of Responsibilities." Among other things, this meant that:

Gone were the assurances (published in prior editions of the Handbook) of a "fair disciplinary hearing," along with freedoms of speech, press, political belief and affiliation, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition for redress of grievances….

How could this possibly have happened? When Ashley Porter, a student reporter at Emerson’s television news channel, investigated, the Dean of Students at first denied that anything had been deleted, then made the inexplicable claim that a section listing students’ rights was unnecessary. Porter also sought to get some answers from the president of Emerson’s Board of Trustees, but was simply told to raise her questions with the administration—even though she had already done so. Eventually, Emerson’s administration announced that, contrary to the Dean of Students’ prior statements to Porter, the removal of the section on students’ rights had in fact been "inadvertent." The section was then restored in the Student Handbook.

While this case is noteworthy for a number of reasons, I’d like to highlight a couple of them. For one, it demonstrates that private colleges and universities—fully aware of court decisions in many jurisdictions (including Massachusetts) holding that promises made to students in school materials such as student handbooks are legally enforceable as a matter of contract law—may resort to eliminating such provisions from their materials. This end-run tactic is dangerous from a student’s perspective because private institutions are not bound by the Bill of Rights, meaning that a school’s stated policies on free speech, due process, and other rights represent the primary basis upon which those rights are protected and guaranteed.

Therefore, this case also tells us that it is important for students at private schools to be alert and proactive in monitoring the actions of the administration and in particular any changes in official policy. While students at any university would do well to take this approach, it is especially important for private university students to do so. Seeing what Emerson tried to get away with in removing the entire section on students’ rights should be enough of a precautionary tale for any student at a private institution.