Education Law

New law gives North Carolina public college students the right to a lawyer in campus courts

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Students at public colleges in North Carolina generally have the right to a lawyer in campus disciplinary proceedings under a new law signed by the governor on Friday.

The law (PDF) says students in disciplinary hearings have the right to representation, by lawyers hired at the students’ expense or by nonlawyer advocates, report Inside Higher Ed and the Washington Free Beacon. There are two exceptions where there is no right to a lawyer—when the campus court is a student honor court fully staffed by students, or when the allegation concerns academic dishonesty.

The law is believed to be the first of its kind, Inside Higher Ed reports. Previously lawyers were allowed to attend disciplinary hearings, but only in an advisory role.

Campus officials who disagree with the law say disciplinary hearings aren’t the same as court hearings. There is a finding of responsibility rather than guilt, the penalty in the most serious cases is only suspension or expulsion, and the goal is to teach good citizenship rather than punishment.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education had supported the law. FIRE senior vice president Robert Shibley says the law will help level the paying field. “Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment, and even rape,” he said in a press release. “Being labeled a felon and kicked out by your college carries serious, life-altering consequences.” He elaborated in an editorial published by the Herald-Sun.

Shibley wrote that many students are unwittingly giving up their Fifth Amendment rights by testifying in campus proceedings, and the disciplinary findings can affect their ability to get an education and find a job.

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