Author's Note: check out www.letterstoayoungprogressive.com for a free chapter of my latest book.
Students and their parents need to be warned about the latest serious threat to liberty on America's college campuses. They have probably already heard of campus speech codes, anti-discrimination clauses, and sexual harassment tribunals. The latest threat takes the form of "disorderly conduct" hearings. Many readers are wondering what exactly constitutes disorderly conduct. The more appropriate question might be "what does not?"
Of course, it is natural for students to have conflict in college. Many are away from home for the first time and they are just beginning to experience living on a campus together with people to whom they are not related. The transition can be a tough one. It is often compounded when more than two people are living together. This raises the possibility of coalitions, which can cause conflict to escalate.
Sometimes students turn to the administration to resolve conflicts. Other times, the university simply intervenes on its own initiative. Regardless, university involvement generally intensifies the conflict and virtually guarantees that someone will be deprived of due process. Allow me to provide an example.
In a recent case at a UNC campus, a student was embroiled in a conflict with both of her roommates. The roommates did not like her boyfriend and so they filed a complaint about an alleged violation of the visitation policy. Shortly thereafter, the university police arrived at the campus apartment and were invited in by one of the complaining roommates. Police then ordered the student out of the shower to answer questions about the alleged visitation violation.
Naturally, the student was angry about being summoned in a state of total nudity and forced to hurriedly dress in order to submit to a police interrogation. So she raised her voice at the roommates who initiated the complaint. She was then charged with disorderly conduct. And, naturally, the university set up a hearing to be conducted in accordance with Alice's Rules of Evidence - otherwise known as the student handbook.
The student's "disorderly conduct" hearing was characterized by three flagrant abuses of due process that have become routine in student disciplinary proceedings in the UNC system and, in fact, all around the country. They are described below, roughly in order of their importance:
1. Denial of legal representation. Students are brought into hearings where they face possible expulsion in the middle of the semester. This means they may have paid thousands of dollars in tuition and may receive no credit for their efforts - even if they completed most of the semester's work. University counsel is routinely present at these hearings but students are routinely banned from having their own lawyer present.
2. Redaction of exculpatory statements. When police gather evidence and conduct interviews, they always turn them over to the Dean of Students Office. There, the evidence is routinely examined by administrators. They quickly make a determination of guilt or innocence. If the accused is guilty in the eyes of the administration, they extract portions of their testimony while leaving the testimony of accusers intact. This virtually assures that there can be no finding of innocence at the "hearing."
3. Determination of verdict prior to hearing. Normally, the announcement of a guilty or "responsible" verdict is typed up in official document form before the hearing begins. The document also includes an announcement of punishment, which can sometimes mean immediate expulsion. It is simply handed to the student at the end of a "hearing," which is held in order to give the appearance of due process. These kangaroo courts are staged in order to respond to angry inquiries from parents with the following explanation: "We're sorry, but your child did have a hearing before we expelled her."
All three of these routine abuses occurred in the recent UNC case that I mentioned above. The student was expelled in the middle of the semester and also suspended for the fall of 2013. Fortunately, she successfully appealed her case to the Vice Chancellor who reinstated her. But the month-long ordeal disrupted her studies and certainly affected her academic performance for the semester. Too bad the Dean of Students can't be charged with disorderly conduct.
With the help of the Republican legislature, I'm trying to fix these problems that have been ignored for so long by Democrats. Presently, there is a bill moving through the house that will force every public university in the state to allow students the right to counsel in all administrative hearings where they may be expelled or even suspended.
The new bill permitting students to fight back with the assistance of legal counsel will help erode all three of the abuses I have listed above - one directly and the other two indirectly. But we also need to eliminate "disorderly conduct" charges from university handbooks and simply allow the criminal code to function in its place. For example:
*If someone is drunk and disorderly, charge him with that.
*If someone becomes so disorderly he makes a threat, charge him with that.
*If someone becomes so disorderly he throws a punch, charge him with simple assault.
Put simply, there is no need for residual "disorderly conduct" clauses in student handbooks. Like speech codes, they are overly broad and arbitrarily enforced. And they are turning our campuses into modern day fiefdoms.