Federal court upholds college rule barring lawyer participation in campus hearings

March 30, 2018

In a recent decision, the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ruled that a college student did not have the right to the active assistance of counsel during a campus disciplinary proceeding while simultaneous criminal charges were pending. The decision strikes a blow to an essential student due process right.

The case featured Pennsylvania State University student Grace Simms, who was criminally charged with assault, disorderly conduct, and harassment as well as several student conduct code violations. Facing possible jail time, she sought to have an attorney represent her during her campus disciplinary hearing. After all, statements made by students in campus tribunals have been found admissible against them in subsequent criminal proceedings. Yet Penn State refused to allow to her attorney to address the disciplinary panel during the hearing. Simms was eventually found responsible for the student conduct charges while the criminal charges were later dropped.

Simms then sued, alleging that Penn State violated her due process right to have an attorney actively participate in her hearing. She argued that Penn State’s refusal to grant this right created a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: she could either remain silent at the hearing, rendering herself defenseless against the university’s charges and all but assure the imposition of sanctions, or she could speak out at the risk of her words coming back to haunt her in criminal court. She asserted that Penn State unjustly forced her into this “precarious position,” pressing her to face “a troubling decision” that implicated her Fifth Amendment due process right against compelled self-incrimination.

The district court rejected her argument, holding that when it comes to campus tribunals, “the majority of district courts in the Third Circuit that have confronted this question have held that no such right exists.” It found that although “Simms had a significant private interest in having her attorney participate fully in her Conduct Board hearing,” this interest was outweighed by “the administrative costs of requiring Penn State Altoona to make its student disciplinary procedures more adversarial, specialized, and bureaucratic.” The court proceeded to dismiss Simms’ suit.

Overruling a student’s right to the active assistance of counsel because of its cost to a $5.7 billion institution evinces a disturbing disregard for fundamental rights to due process. The importance of this right is at its zenith when students face potential criminal charges for the conduct in question — a situation where a college’s refusal to afford basic procedural protections could result in consequences beyond expulsion for accused students. Further, the full array of elementary due process protections, such as the right to present relevant evidence, pose questions to witnesses, and challenge the adjudicator’s impartiality, is best realized by competent counsel who can help a student advocate for their rights throughout the potentially life-altering and often confusing campus disciplinary process. Without this essential guarantor of due process protections, such rights aren’t worth the paper they’re frequently not written on.

Simms is currently exploring an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. We’ll be sure to keep our readers apprised of any updates.