The New York Times and the Huffington Post have been very critical of recent legislation by the House and Senate of the State of North Carolina. But neither of those liberal news outlets - and I use the term "news outlets" loosely - have recognized their recent attempt to restore due process in one of the most oppressive judicial systems in the country. Indeed, the UNC system is among the greatest antagonists of fairness and due process in the entire nation. Since this is a bold assertion, it demands elaboration.
Students in the UNC system are routinely brought up on charges of violating speech and conduct policies that are so vague that no one - not even the people who write and enforce the policies - understands exactly what kinds of speech and behavior they prohibit. When students are brought up on these vague charges, they are denied lawyers. Crucial evidence from investigations is often redacted prior to hearings. Verdicts resulting in suspension and expulsion of students are often decided and printed before the actual "hearings" begin. Often, after students are deprived of due process and expelled, they are ineligible for tuition refunds. It is the kind of "justice" one would expect in the Middle East or in Latin America.
After liberals ignored these problems for years, conservatives got to work last session sponsoring bills designed to address them. One of the bills, passed by the Senate in late July, authorized a legislative study of the issue, specifically to look at a student’s right to counsel in the hearing process. The other, passed by the House in May, spells out those rights. In the interests of full disclosure, I was involved in drafting that legislation.
The bill we passed in the House would allow a student to be represented during a hearing by a licensed attorney or “non-attorney advocate,” except in a case involving academic dishonesty or in front of a student honor court which is fully staffed by students. I am proud to say that the bill was sponsored by Representative John Bell who was a student of mine at UNC-Wilmington in the late 1990s.
Bell took particular interest in the issue as a result of a case involving his old fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, at UNC Wilmington. In that case, SAE officers were called into a hearing and questioned about an alcohol-related incident. Because the conduct in question was technically criminal, they asked for attorneys. UNCW officials refused to allow them counsel. When the students asked a second time, those same officials suggested that they might be violating the Seahawk Respect Compact by taking a "disrespectful" tone with their interrogators.
When I heard a tape recording of the entire exchange, I was appalled and decided to take action with the help of some attorney friends. For the record, UNCW later threw the fraternity off campus for refusing to cooperate with the investigation - in other words, for asserting their rights to due process. At that point, we decided to take the issue to the legislature.
The bill that was filed in April said a student could seek representation from an attorney “during any formal stage of any disciplinary procedure." The measure was later amended, at the UNC system’s request, to include the exceptions for academic dishonesty cases and any incident handled by a student-staffed honor court. Predictably, The UNC system is still opposed to the measure.
But Bell’s bill passed the House on May 15 by a vote of 112-1, after receiving just two minutes of floor debate. The vote was lopsided for a simple reason: everyone but the UNC administration recognized that Islamic terrorists in Gitmo have more rights to due process than college students in North Carolina. (For the record, the one representative who didn't support the measure left the session early. He didn't actually vote against it).
Presently, legal representation or assistance of a student by a lawyer in most instances “is neither required nor encouraged,” according to written UNC system policies. The only exception is when a student who faces a university administrative hearing simultaneously faces off-campus criminal charges.
When a university hears of possible criminal conduct by a student, there is an incentive to move forward without alerting the off campus authorities. By taking the matter into their own hands, they may expel a student at a hearing devoid of due process. Worse, the university may decide to hold court over a matter that the police have already investigated and decided to drop without so much as a single arrest. The latter was the case with the incident involving SAE at UNCW.
But now, that is all about to change. Put simply, our little university by the sea has ticked off the wrong legislature and the wrong representative. And the good news is that the new right to counsel bill isn't the only student rights bill to recently pass the house and head toward the senate. There's another one coming down the pipe that will not be well received by administrators with dictatorial tendencies.
That other bill will be the subject of a future column. In the meantime, I hope that other conservatives will decide to join me in the battle for campus due process. It sure is fun to be a community disorganizer promoting hope and change from the inside of an ideological echo chamber.
Update: Since the writing of this column, the North Carolina Student Administrative Equity Act has passed the Senate. It is on its way to the desk of the state’s Republican governor. The author wishes to thank all those who made this victory possible.