NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
North Carolina college students no longer have to worry about facing non-academic disciplinary charges from their universities without legal counsel.On Aug. 23, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed a statewide bill that granted students in the state the right to an attorney in campus courts. Under the Students & Administration Act, students who attend North Carolina’s public universities have the right to be represented by a licensed attorney or non-attorney advocate.The law is the first of its kind in the USA.Though the new rules cover students and student organizations facing disciplinary charges for violating the university’s code of conduct, they do not extend to students accused of academic dishonesty or at schools that have implemented a student honor court."Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment and even rape," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in a news release. "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."FIRE, a non-profit education foundation aimed at preserving civil liberties on U.S. campuses, advocated for the legislation and worked with a bipartisan group of state legislators to put it in action. The act passed the North Carolina House of Representatives via a landslide 112-1 vote and was ultimately included in the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which passed the Legislature on July 26.Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for FIRE, says the strong legislative support was because lawmakers recognized that denying students the right to hire lawyers in campus disciplinary hearings left them without meaningful due process."It is growing impossible to ignore how unfair campus disciplinary hearings have become; the accused is denied representation while the cases against them are argued by deans, administrators and sometimes lawyers with decades of experience," Cohn wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "Legislators from across the political spectrum understood that the stakes in these hearings are too high to allow students to face suspensions or expulsions for non-academic disciplinary charges without legal representation."For years, the state’s K-12 students have had the right to legal representation when facing suspension or expulsion, but university policies prohibited students from having legal counsel present their case to administrators during disciplinary proceedings. Before the law, college students were allowed to rely on an attorney for advice and resources, but the students had to represent themselves and speak on their own behalf.It is unclear how the university systems will handle the issue of students who cannot afford representation, as universities are not obligated to appoint counsel to low-income students.Cohn is confident that low-income students will still benefit from the law, as it allows students to opt for representation by non-legal professionals to ensure that students who cannot afford a lawyer will not be left to represent themselves."Low-income students will (still) benefit from the right to hire attorneys because that opens up the door for the possibility of pro bono representation," Cohn wrote. "Moreover, student governments could use some of their considerable funding to contract with local attorneys to meet students’ need for representation."Cohn hopes college students nationwide will soon be offered this same right. He says student access to legal representation will help level the playing field, as there are many students who may not be familiar with legal terms, leaving them unprepared for a courtroom proceeding."Hopefully, universities will welcome this law’s passage and realize that fair processes benefit everyone," Cohn wrote. "Attorney involvement will help result in fair, reliable hearings procedures that follow a standardized set of rules, and that will benefit all parties involved."