North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a law granting college students the right to an attorney in campus courts, Friday, that had previously been denied to students facing disciplinary charges.
Under the "Students and Administration Equality Act," college students and student groups will now be guaranteed the right to have an attorney present in non-academic disciplinary proceedings. North Carolina university system policies had prohibited students from having legal counsel when interacting with administrators during proceedings.
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"We are immensely gratified that the legislature and governor of North Carolina have taken this critical step in giving students a fair chance for justice," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in a recent statement. The nonprofit educational foundation worked with state legislators to help pass the law.
Shibley said facing disciplinary charges on campus is no small matter, and prior to the law students were forced to represent themselves.
"Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment, and even rape," he said. "Being labeled a felon and kicked out by your college carries serious, life-altering consequences."
"Because the stakes are so high, students should have the benefit of an attorney to ensure the hearing is conducted fairly and by the rules," Shibley said.
"Facing down a room full of deans, administrators, and university lawyers when accused of a campus crime is a hugely intimidating task," FIRE legislative and policy Director Joe Cohn added. "Giving these students access to legal representation levels the playing field and, especially given the importance of college education in one’s life and career, could make a difference that will last a lifetime."
The bipartisan bill passed on July 26 as part of the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which was signed into law by Gov. McCrory on Friday.
Students will have a right to a lawyer unless they are accused of "academic dishonesty" or if the trial is before a "Student Honor Court," due to two exemptions in the law.
Shibley said the law was necessary because college tribunals are not "shining examples of justice."
He cited a case at the University of North Dakota where a student, Caleb Warner, was found guilty of sexual assault by the school, despite an investigation by local police that resulted in no charges.
"The evidence they gathered suggested that his accuser was lying to the police," Shibley said. "In fact, the police charged the accuser with filing a false report.
"Yet the university still found Warner guilty—a decision it vacated only after public outcry," he said. "As you might suspect, Warner was not permitted legal representation during this hearing."
The "new law provides that students or student organizations facing campus disciplinary charges are entitled to be represented by an attorney or, if they prefer, a non-attorney advocate," said North Carolina State Rep. John R. Bell IV." The law exempts students charged solely with academic dishonesty or students facing proceedings in a "Student Honor Court" fully staffed by other students. (Only UNC-Chapel Hill appears to operate such an honor court.)
"This bipartisan effort to protect student rights, is a step in the right direction to giving students and student organizations the level playing field when facing down a room full of deans, administrators, and university lawyers when accused of a campus crime. It allows these students to have an advisor, lawyer, family member, etc. to stand with them on decisions that could affect their college education and their life," Bell added.