College Code of Conduct Defense

Q: What is College Code of Conduct defense?

A: Every college and university has a Code of Conduct, usually included in the student handbook. The code tells students how they are expected to behave on campus, and what types of behaviors are forbidden. If a student violates the code of conduct, he or she may be charged with violations of the code, and brought before the college disciplinary board. When the violations of the Code of Conduct are serious, the student may face suspension, expulsion, or a permanent blot on their academic records.

Q: Are there problems with College Codes of Conduct?

A: Many college codes of conduct contain rules that are so vague that it is impossible to know when the rule might be violated. For example, many codes require that students show "respect" to all faculty and other students. What is merely challenging to one person may feel disrespectful to another. Too many modern college conduct codes are premised on the assumption that all have the right never to be offended. Some college conduct codes attempt to prohibit speech and symbolic expression, which on a public campus are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. A serious problem is the lack of procedural protections granted to accused students under many codes, even when the charges are serious.

Q: Can you give examples of what you mean by lack of procedural protections?

A: Some codes restrict the accused student's ability to confront his accuser. Most do not permit a college to have his attorney present his case before the disciplinary board, while others allow the attorney in the room, but do not allow him to participate. Still other codes do not even allow a student to have a lawyer accompany him into the disciplinary hearing. The attorney in those schools often must help his client prepare his defense before the disciplinary hearing begins.

Q: Why are the looser procedures of a college disciplinary board unfair – a college is not a courtroom?

A: When charges are minor, loose procedures are fine. Often, the conduct code "hearing" is nothing more than a meeting with a college official, at which the student either admits or denies the charges, and the official decides whether the student is "guilty," and if so, what penalty will be imposed. In minor cases, the student and college official may even agree on a fair penalty, generally mild. When charges are serious, however, and a student might be suspended or expelled, the result may harm that student for many years after graduation. In such a dangerous situation, it is essential that the student have the right to defend himself against the charges in a manner that is more like defense of criminal charges in court than an informal procedure. Serious college conduct code violation charges can harm a student more than modest criminal charges might. Yet, the college student may have trouble obtaining a truly fair hearing at which he can properly defend himself.

Q: Can you give me some examples of what might be considered serious charges?

A: The most serious charges usually involve rape or some other form of sexual assault. Charges of sexual harassment short of physical assault may also have serious consequences. Violations of the college rules on drugs, alcohol, or firearms, theft, physical violence, non-trivial vandalism, stalking, are all serious charges. On the academic end, the most serious charges are of plagarism and cheating.

Q: Do some College Codes of Conduct violate students' Civil Rights?

A: Absolutely. Some college conduct codes define sexual harassment so broadly that they attempt to make jokes or casual talk of a sexual nature, violations of the code if any listener takes offense. Other codes attempt to mandate "civility" or "respect" in all campus interactions, thus attempting to repress students who might use sarcasm, or provocative language, images, or symbols as a way to express their opinions on matters of political, ideological or social importance. College students should be learning to ignore, deflect or debate ideas they do not like, rather than thinking that expression that offend them should be silenced.

Q: If my College Code of Conduct is unfair, is it unconstitutional?

A: Only public colleges and universities, not private schools, are subject to the Constitution. If their codes are sufficiently unfair, they may violate the Consitutional protections of due process of law or free speech. For example, a public college that did not give a student a sufficiently detailed notice of the charges against him, might be violating that student's due process rights. A college that attempts to suppress constitutionally protected speech – there have been a depressingly large number of such examples – violates the student's right under the First Amendment.

Q: Does that mean if I am a student in a private college and am charged with violating the conduct code that I have no rights?

A: Courts have generally required that private colleges and universities abide by the substance and procedures of the codes of conduct that they publish and distribute to students. Since the students are expected to abide by the code, so are the schools. They are a type of contract. Some private colleges provide fewer rights than those required legally of public schools, many provide equivalent rights, and a minority provide even more extensive rights than most public colleges and universities.

Q: Do I need a lawyer if the charge against me is not too serious?

A: A lawyer is probably not necessary and would be overkill in most non-serious college conduct code cases. Attorney representation should be saved for serious charges that may result in suspension, expulsion, or a permanent blot on the student's academic record.

Q: How can a lawyer help me if I am charged with a serious violation of my college code of conduct?

A: An experienced lawyer, especially a lawyer who has prepared and tried cases in courts and before administrative agencies, is trained to understand the law that applies to the specific case and how to best use it. Of equal and sometimes even greater importance, a skilled lawyer knows how to best prepare and present a story – in every case, be it a corporate case, a personal injury case, or defense of a college code violations case, the client tells a story – his or her version of what happened. An attorney will help you to best gather facts, organize your thoughts and the evidence, and advise you on how to address the disciplinary board, and to question witnesses if that is allowed. In colleges that allow you to have an attorney with you in the hearing room, he will be able to advise you as your hearing progresses. In a minority of colleges, if the charges are sufficiently serious, your attorney may present your case, similarly to in a courtroom. For a more detailed explanation of how a lawyer can help, read my article on this web site in the Library/Articles section, titled, How Can an Attorney Help You Defend Yourself in your College Disciplinary Hearing?

Q: How can I possibly afford a lawyer?

A: In many cases, parents or family may have to help with the cost of your defense. I am developing this area of practice because too much injustice occurs in too many serious college conduct code violations hearings. I will work with my clients to make their case affordable.

Q: If I lose my college disciplinary case because the college administrators has treated me unfairly, can I sue?

A: Lawsuits against colleges because of unfair disciplinary procedures or hearings are difficult to win. They are not, however, impossible to win. A lawsuit is justified if a public college or university violates a student's constitutional rights, and may be appropriate against a private university that ignores its own rules, that discriminates against a student on unlawful race, gender, or other such grounds, or that has been grossly unfair.

Q: Can I call you even if I am not sure if I need a lawyer?

A: I will always welcome calls from students who are unsure if they need a lawyer, and I will do my best to explain your legal situation to you. Please do not hesitate to call.