North Carolina Becomes First State to Guarantee College Students’ Right to Attorney

By on August 23, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C., August 23, 2013—Today, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill granting public university students in the state facing non-academic disciplinary charges the right to an attorney. The law, which is the first of its kind nationwide, ensures that students attending the state’s public colleges and universities possess rights similar to those already enjoyed by North Carolina’s K–12 students under state law. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) worked with a bipartisan group of state legislators to enact the protection into law.   “Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment, and even rape. Being labeled a felon and kicked out by your college carries serious, life-altering consequences. 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,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “We are immensely gratified that the legislature and governor of North Carolina have taken this critical step in giving students a fair chance for justice.” With the passage of this law, students at North Carolina’s public colleges are now afforded rights comparable to those of the state’s K–12 students, who for years have had the right to a lawyer when facing a 10-day suspension or expulsion. In contrast, students accused of crimes at schools within the University of North Carolina system were routinely forced to represent themselves, even when the school was represented by an attorney. (The University of North Carolina system boasts approximately 60 lawyers in its general counsels’ offices alone, with more throughout its college administrations generally.) The new law provides that students or student organizations facing campus disciplinary charges are entitled to be represented by an attorney or, if they prefer, a non-attorney advocate. The law exempts students charged solely with academic dishonesty or students facing proceedings in a “Student Honor Court” fully staffed by other students. (Only UNC-Chapel Hill appears to operate such an honor court.) This bipartisan effort to protect student rights was first introduced to the North Carolina House on April 10 as the Students & Administration Equality Act and was authored by Rep. John Bell (R). Fellow sponsors included Reps. Nathan Baskerville (D), Jonathan C. Jordan (R), and Rick Glazier (D). The House overwhelmingly approved the Act by a vote of 112–1 on May 15.  With slight alterations, the core of the Students & Administration Equality Act was included in the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which passed the legislature on July 26 and was signed by Governor McCrory today. “For many students, especially first-generation college students or those who might come from disadvantaged backgrounds, facing down a room full of deans, administrators, and university lawyers when accused of a campus crime is a hugely intimidating task,” said FIRE Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn. “Giving these students access to legal representation levels the playing field and, especially given the importance of college education in one’s life and career, could make a difference that will last a lifetime.” FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.  CONTACT: Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.orgJoe Cohn, Legislative and Policy Director, FIRE: 215-717-3473; joe@thefire.org

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