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I’m not asking for WikiLeaks, but…

When universities hide their policies, everyone loses.

As a Student Conduct Advisor at Penn State University, I not only work with administrators to protect student rights, but I also help students navigate the conduct process. Students often come into my office holding back tears, expecting that I will tell them they are going to be suspended for their first underage drinking citation. Most times, I wonder why they don’t just look up the university’s policies to see that the consequences of their first, minor conduct violation aren’t that severe. However, after researching various schools’ codes of conduct online for FIRE’s new Student Defenders program, I discovered firsthand just how difficult it can be to locate these policies.

It took hours of searching to find information that would be helpful to any student entering a university, and especially those going through the conduct process. Sites for student legal services or conduct offices took multiple searches to find, and many times, even after I found them, they did not include much relevant information. For example, many sites failed to include a basic list of services provided to students. As someone accustomed to doing this work as a student conduct advisor, I can’t imagine how complicated and confusing it must be for the average student trying to find this vital information.

Being able to find accurate, pertinent information when it counts is key. Although many schools provide a brief overview of the student handbook during orientation, students aren’t likely to be able to recall the finer (or even basic) points of process when, sometime later, they find themselves overcome with the stress of a disciplinary investigation. By posting the handbook or code of conduct somewhere where it was easy to access, or posting it in as many relevant places as possible to make sure students can find what they are looking for, schools would be taking an important step towards guaranteeing that the student body is informed. Students will also, arguably, be less likely to unknowingly violate their school’s code of conduct if it is more visible and reiterated in multiple ways or places online and on campus.

All university offices should have a full, easy-to-find web page that includes a description of what they do and how they can help students. How can students seek assistance from a legal service or conduct office on a time-sensitive matter if they are unable to find their contact information? By the time a student reaches the right person, it may be too late. A student going through the conduct process will face additional stress and confusion if they aren’t able to access the necessary information. An office that is inaccessible serves no purpose at a university.

What’s more, even when the conduct or judicial office page does exist, information can be missing, confusing, or contradictory. Often, these offices’ websites are missing the rules of conduct and the corresponding disciplinary procedures that govern conduct hearings. For example, policies often don’t specify the range of sanctions students will receive if they are found responsible for violating particular rules. How can students trust and understand their school when they are not privy to such important information?

Without clearly stated sanctions, students are left to guess whether, for example, underage drinking can lead to suspension or expulsion. (An even broader but important issue — beyond the scope of this piece, but worth mentioning — is that many schools have been known to maintain two policies that directly contradict each other, or even a single policy with multiple contradictory statements.) Keeping this information hidden allows for different sanctions to be handed down for the same violations — a direct violation of due process — and opens the doors to unequal treatment and discrimination in the conduct process. Transparency ensures that students are fully aware of policies they may be violating as well as ensuring that students are aware of policies that violate their rights.

Beyond the code of conduct, colleges and universities should also provide clear information about the procedures and offices relevant to the disciplinary process. Every school has a protocol for dealing with violations of the code of conduct, and there is no reason to keep that information hidden from students. The entire student conduct process could be streamlined by ensuring that students can easily access and understand exactly what happens in a conduct meeting and how the meeting is structured. This would also help prevent a common problem of students feeling alone and confused about the process. Most importantly, these documents must make clear what rights a student has with regard to the conduct process. Too often,  this information can only be found buried deep in the student handbook and written in an unclear and confusing way.

Public or private, schools should be making their conduct codes and disciplinary procedures available to everyone so that both prospective and current students know and understand the school’s policies and their corresponding disciplinary procedures. Without such information, prospective students are unable to make informed decisions about what schools to attend, and current students are vulnerable to having their rights be violated without their knowledge.

For these reasons, FIRE automatically gives its worst, “red light” rating to schools that have password-protected free speech policies, like Northeastern Illinois University and Connecticut College. Password protecting means that no one other than current students can access their policies regulating expression. These documents should not be kept private, only for the eyes of administrators; anyone should be able to look up school policies regardless of their status as a student at the university. Prospective and incoming students should be allowed to know exactly what they are signing up for.  

While I don’t know why so many of these documents are inaccessible to students, my optimistic guess would be that this information is being kept on old websites that have not been updated in some time. Publishing a clearly laid out page with the most up-to-date information would be a simple step toward helping students understand conduct process at their schools. Any sense of distrust that students associate with a lack of information can be ameliorated by putting these documents out in the public.

If you are prospective or current student at a university and find that you are unable to access documents like the ones I discussed, reach out to FIRE staff to help you find your school’s policies and make sure that your free speech and due process rights are being honored and protected on campus!

Veronica Joyce is a rising senior at Penn State and a FIRE summer intern.

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