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Silverglate: Students’ Rights Pulling a Disappearing Act?

In yesterday’s issue of The Phoenix, Harvey Silverglate (Chairman of FIRE’s Board of Directors) and James Tierney discuss a disturbing case of disappearing student rights at Emerson College in Boston. As Silverglate and Tierney explain:

Any freshman who matriculated this past month at Emerson College might have found in the current Student Handbook a list of student responsibilities, which set forth the conduct expected of the academic community. But returning Emerson students turning to that same page would have found a glaring omission, since the “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” published in the 2006–2007 (and earlier) editions of the handbook had suddenly morphed into the current “Statement of Responsibilities.”

When a student reporter at Emerson set out to learn just what had happened to those rights—which had included the rights to due process and free speech—she was given the run-around by the Emerson administration. Emerson’s Dean of Students initially denied that the rights were removed from the handbook, then confirmed that they had in fact been removed—and then later, in a third explanation, stated that the rights had been “‘unintentionally edited out’ and were being reinstated, with some revisions.” Unfortunately, one of those “revisions” turned out to be the removal of the guarantee of due process, which was replaced with a more vague “guarantee of a ‘fair disciplinary hearing.’”

According to Silverglate and Tierney, Emerson’s actions are part of a nationwide trend towards modifying or eliminating enumerations of student rights in response to several court decisions that “have suggested that schools must honor the promises of fairness and freedom they make to students in those handbooks.” But, as Silverglate and Tierney write, student vigilance provides an important check against the abuse of student rights by overzealous administrators:

[C]ampus administrators panicked over the possibility that words — and rights — were suddenly going to have real meaning in campus life. But lawyers and administrators, ever creative at figuring out how to avoid having to deliver on what one promises, started to backtrack. The free student press at Emerson, however, proved a robust and vigilant check against the school’s lawyers and administrators. May it ever be so.

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