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The Importance of Student Defenders in University Disciplinary Hearings

The public often overlooks the potential impact of university disciplinary hearings on a student’s life because they are internal university processes. But the idea that these hearings don’t really matter couldn’t be further from the truth. Students who violate a university’s code of conduct can face sanctions that affect their future. For example, these violations can show up on a student’s transcript, which may be shared with (and prevent acceptance by) graduate schools and even future employers.

Because the stakes can be so high, it is extremely important that students facing disciplinary proceedings are provided due process. Guaranteeing due process should be a priority for both administrators and students, not just because it is required by the Constitution at public schools, but also because it protects both parties involved. Due process helps to ensure the accused has a fair and unbiased hearing which, in turn, provides a fair outcome. Procedural due process also limits the risk of a lawsuit by a punished student.

Such lawsuits are increasingly in the news. Take for example the case of Doe v. University of Southern California (2016) this past spring. In Doe, a California appeals court held that the plaintiff was denied a fair disciplinary hearing for lack of basic due process in a sexual misconduct case and reversed the university’s decision.

One way to help students receive the due process they deserve is by allowing them to have advisors present and active throughout the entire disciplinary process. This contributes to the objective of giving students a fair hearing by providing them access to someone who knows the process and can answer any questions they may have. While some accused students would benefit most from representation by attorneys, well-trained members of the student body can also have an enormous positive impact.

Accused students—who are often unfamiliar with how the proceedings work and distracted by the high stakes for their own lives and careers—should not be disadvantaged when it comes to effective representation. This is especially important for international students, as they may be even more unfamiliar with university disciplinary proceedings. By allowing and empowering student-run “student defender” groups to assist and advise accused students, schools help ensure a fair process in disciplinary hearings.

Allowing student defenders to both advise accused students and actively participate in the proceedings against them serves several important functions: First, student defenders can provide peace of mind and help students feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar process in which administrators are at a natural advantage. This gives accused students the confidence to advocate for themselves. In my experience, administrators act favorably toward students who do this in an honest and forthcoming manner. Second, giving skilled student defenders the ability to give opening and closing statements, and cross-examine witnesses on behalf of an accused student also helps ensure the most relevant information is obtained and applied to the case. In short, student defenders help accused students focus on gathering and presenting necessary information, and can aid in opening dialogue and uncovering the truth.

Student defender groups operate on a number of campuses, including Ohio University, Michigan State University, and the University of Massachusetts  – Amherst. The programs permit different levels of involvement in the disciplinary process. For example, Students Defending Students at Ohio University, where I am the director, can help students prepare statements and cross-examine witnesses. Students I have met at Michigan State University’s student defenders are allowed to give opening and closing statements on behalf of an accused student they represent.

Student defender groups should be established on campuses throughout the nation—not to argue against administrators, but to work with them towards the ultimate goal: finding the truth through fair and impartial means. Both sides should hold the other accountable if at any time a student’s rights are not the priority. By providing all accused students with a defender who has a good relationship with the administration and knowledge of the process, a university can help ensure students are in the best position to present their cases and access the protections that the school’s procedures provide.

Samuel Flannery is a FIRE summer intern.

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