N.C.’s college students need lawyers when accused in campus courts

Jul. 23, 2013 @ 03:22 PM

“A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

Americans have adopted this popular bit of legal wisdom, attributed to none other than Abraham Lincoln, wholeheartedly. Virtually nobody considers standing trial for a crime without an attorney; indeed, all Americans are guaranteed representation during criminal proceedings.

Yet serious crimes are constantly being tried in a little-known legal system where lawyers for the accused are nowhere to be found: North Carolina’s campus courts. By Lincoln’s standard, our public universities have been making fools out of their students for decades. It’s time for that to stop.

A bipartisan bill is under consideration in the State Senate that would remedy this disgrace. The Students & Administration Equality Act boasts sponsors from both parties and passed the State House by a stunning 112–1 margin. The Senate should move quickly to protect the rights of North Carolinians by passing the bill, as well.

Every K–12 student in North Carolina’s public schools is guaranteed the right to a lawyer when facing suspension or expulsion. But on our state’s public college campuses, that right evaporates. They must stand alone against an enormous apparatus of more than 60 lawyers across the UNC system in the general counsels’ offices, with more throughout college administrations generally.

And while students in the UNC system can’t have a lawyer represent them when accused of crimes, there’s no such restriction on administrators. In fact, nothing prevents a UNC campus from staffing the hearing process entirely with lawyers, leaving an accused teenager as the only person in the room without a law degree.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the stakes were low — but they aren’t. Students may be tried in campus courts for theft, assault, rape and other felony crimes. Being labeled a felon and kicked out by your school carries serious, life-altering consequences. Not only does it change the course of one’s education and career, but it also makes it highly difficult to get jobs that don’t require a college degree. Why should an employer take a chance on a “proven” rapist or thief? The same goes for transferring to other colleges, of course.

And don’t forget, nothing prevents criminal prosecutors from using statements made in college courts against the accused in criminal proceedings. Without a lawyer during these campus hearings, many students are unknowingly giving up their Fifth Amendment rights.

If college tribunals were shining examples of justice, this bill might not be necessary. But sadly, that hasn’t proven to be the case. At the University of North Dakota, for instance, undergrad Caleb Warner was accused of sexual assault. Upon investigating, the local police refused to charge him with any crime. Why not? The evidence they gathered suggested that his accuser was lying to the police. 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. As you might suspect, Warner was not permitted legal representation during this hearing.

Closer to home, UNC–Chapel Hill student Landen Gambill was charged with violating an unconstitutional speech code earlier this year. Her crime? Complaining about the way she was treated after reporting a sexual assault. Thankfully, despite not having a right under Carolina’s rules to do so, Gambill hired a lawyer. The lawyer instructed Gambill not to participate in the hearing because it was an unconstitutional attempt to retaliate against her for protected speech — and the hearing was never held. Having an attorney made the difference for Gambill. How many students like Gambill are unfairly subjected to discipline because they lack a lawyer?

It’s simply unreasonable to expect 18- or 19-year-old students to competently represent themselves before deans and administrators with decades of experience — who act as judge, jury and executioner for campus crimes. This imbalance is particularly acute for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. While it’s possible that students who grew up around lawyers or other professionals may face such a tribunal with confidence, first-generation students or those who rely on substantial financial aid have the added burden of knowing that their livelihoods — and often the dreams of their families — are on the line. For them, having legal representation during the few hours of a hearing could make a difference that will last for decades. Yet right now, even if students are allowed to bring their own attorneys, UNC campuses virtually never let those advocates speak during trials. All they can do is whisper in the students’ ears and hope for the best.

College students in North Carolina’s public universities should have at least the same rights as our elementary and high school students to defend their access to an education. The State Senate shouldn’t let a new school year begin without making that happen.

Robert Shibley is senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and a resident of Apex.