The college you attend holds a tremendous amount of power over your life. Administrators’ choice of whether or not to grant you a degree, or whether or not to place a mark on your transcript saying that you have committed a serious disciplinary offense, can have a dramatic impact on your future.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that colleges often decide whether to suspend or expel students with very little of what lawyers refer to as due process — the set of rules and procedures that the authorities must follow in order to ensure that the decisions they make are fair and just. On our nation’s campuses, students accused of serious offenses are often denied the opportunity to have a meaningful hearing, are denied access to evidence in their case, and/or are unable to confront the witnesses against them. Depending on the type of school (public or private), the school’s policies, and applicable state law, this may be illegal.
The right to due process is grounded in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides (among other things) that no one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Because this “Due Process Clause” constrains government actors, and state colleges and universities are government actors, this means that students at state universities have constitutional due process rights that their universities cannot violate in the course of conducting student disciplinary proceedings.
So what does this mean? In the 1974 case of Goss v. Lopez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that public school students facing even a short suspension — 10 days or less — are entitled to notice of the charges against them and the opportunity to present their side of the story. Cases involving longer suspensions or expulsion, the Court held, may require yet “more formal procedures.”
So at a bare minimum, a public university cannot suspend or expel a student without giving that student notice and an opportunity to be heard. But in many cases, due process requires even more than that — especially now that colleges and universities regularly try students not only for things like plagiarism and cheating, but also for nonacademic misconduct that may also constitute criminal behavior (like sexual assault, for example.)
Because the Supreme Court has yet to rule in one of these newer cases, the precise scope of public university students’ due process rights varies depending on applicable lower court rulings. But here are some things that courts around the country have held violate students’ due process rights:
- Not giving students accused of sexual misconduct the opportunity to cross-examine their accuser and the witnesses against them;
- Withholding evidence that might exonerate an accused student;
- Not allowing an accused student to see the evidence against him or her;
- Training that may have biased a hearing panel against the accused.
So where does this leave students at private universities?
At private universities, students’ rights are primarily contractual. In many states, university handbooks actually create a contractual relationship between students and their university. This means that while private universities have broad discretion to adopt whatever procedures they want for deciding campus conduct cases, they must, generally speaking, follow those procedures. For example, if a university’s student handbook promises students five days’ notice before a hearing, but gives a student only one day, that university may have breached its contract with the student.
FOR MORE ON DUE PROCESS
Samantha Harris, “Court: Exclusion of evidence, biased training, lack of cross-examination, low evidentiary standard may have violated student’s due process rights,” FIRE, Jan. 17, 2019.
“Since 2011, there have been more than 400 lawsuits brought in federal and state courts by accused students alleging they were denied a fair process in campus sexual misconduct adjudications. At public universities, these cases typically include a claim, like the one here, that the university violated the accused student’s constitutional due process rights. As these cases work their way through the courts, the law surrounding universities’ due process obligations continues to evolve.
While courts have historically been reluctant to interfere in matters of internal college discipline, that traditional deference has begun to change as colleges increasingly adjudicate claims not just of academic misconduct but also of a quasi-criminal nature. As one federal judge recently wrote, there is a serious question as to “whether this context—wherein a [student] is accused of conduct which may form the basis for criminal prosecution—changes the…calculus” in a way that requires a university to provide accused students with more robust due process protections.”
Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV, from his opinion in the federal court case of Doe v. Brandeis University, 177 F. Supp. 3d 561 (D. Mass. 2016).
“Brandeis appears to have substantially impaired, if not eliminated, an accused student’s right to a fair and impartial process. And it is not enough simply to say that such changes are appropriate because victims of sexual assault have not always achieved justice in the past. Whether someone is a “victim” is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning. Each case must be decided on its own merits, according to its own facts. If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.”
Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet (and 27 of her colleagues), “Rethink Harvard’s Sexual Harassment Policy,” The Boston Globe, Oct. 15, 2014.
“As teachers responsible for educating our students about due process of law, the substantive law governing discrimination and violence, appropriate administrative decision-making, and the rule of law generally, we find the new sexual harassment policy inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach. … Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation.”
Journalist Emily Yoffe, “The College Rape Overcorrection,” Slate, Dec. 7, 2014.
“Any woman who is raped, on campus or off, deserves a fair and thorough investigation of her claim, and those found guilty should be punished. But the new rules—rules often put in place hastily and in response to the idea of a rape epidemic on campus—have left some young men saying they are the ones who have been victimized. They are starting to push back. In the past three years, men found responsible for sexual assault on campus have filed more than three dozen cases against schools. They argue that their due process rights have been violated and say they have been victims of gender discrimination under Title IX. Their complaints are starting to cost universities.”