Be someone’s compass. Be someone’s shield. Be a student defender.

By August 31, 2018

Anyone who’s read our website this week knows that it is jam-packed with resources to help students defend and advocate for their freedom of expression.

But it doesn’t end there.

If you’re a student who cares about fundamental fairness, due process, and campus justice, FIRE wants to help you be a hero to your peers at a time when they need you most. That’s why we’re so proud to write about our Student Defenders program.

Every year, students at campuses across the country are accused of a wide range of conduct code violations, from underage drinking to vandalism to sexual misconduct. When people off campus get accused of crimes and end up in court, there are a lot of safeguards in place that are supposed to ensure everyone gets a fair shake. Even then, not everyone gets treated fairly, and innocent people get punished too often.

On campus, it can feel like the Wild West. Many schools don’t have the kind of safeguards that protect people against inaccurate guilty findings in court, and many decisions about how students accused of misconduct are treated are left completely up to the whims of campus administrators. Colleges can’t put students in jail, of course, but they can make it difficult or nearly impossible for students to continue their educational careers — an expulsion can be life-changing.

What’s more, university disciplinary proceedings are often convoluted and confusing. It can be hard to tell, if you’re accused of wrongdoing, what your rights are under school policy and what steps are coming next. With so much up in the air, it’s no wonder that students aren’t always treated fairly and given a real chance to defend themselves.

That’s where student defenders come in. These are students who have learned their college’s disciplinary policies and procedures and know what’s coming next. They know what an accused student’s rights are and what potential due process violations to watch out for. When an accused student might feel lost, anxious, and scared about their future, a student defender will guide them through an investigation and a hearing. A student defender can also help an accused student prepare their case so their chances of getting a fair hearing are maximized. And with fairer hearings come more accurate, reliable results — so the whole community benefits!

Some schools already have student advocacy groups like this, but most don’t. They need a student like you to take the important step of starting a Student Defenders group on campus. It may seem like a daunting task, but FIRE is here to point you to the first steps, provide sample organizational documents so you’re never working from scratch, and help you navigate any obstacles along the way.

If you need another set of eyes to figure out some tricky policy language, we’re on standby. We can help connect you with other students who have successfully started or led their own Student Defenders groups, and we even offer grants to help with start-up costs and advertising. If there’s any question you can’t find the answer to in our Student Defenders Official Guidebook, you can always feel free to send us an email.

Student defenders have significant impacts on their peers’ lives, whether their goal for a given case is to keep an innocent student from being punished or to simply provide some compassion and guidance for someone who may have made a mistake. They truly serve their communities and, as a bonus, develop skills that can serve them well the rest of their lives.

If you want to start a Student Defenders group on your campus, or want more information about the Student Defenders program, contact studentdefenders@thefire.org or sign up at studentdefenders.org!