Bill could give students right to attorney for UJC, Honor hearings
Bill has 'real and serious consequence[s],' Ensey says
Virginia Delegate Rick Morris, R-Carrollton, recently proposed a bill which gives students at state universities, such as the University, the right to counsel, and the right of review, for certain disciplinary proceedings and decisions.
Del. Rick Morris, R-Carrollton, proposed a bill earlier this month that would give students at public universities the right to counsel and the right to an appeal in the circuit courts for certain college and university disciplinary proceedings and decisions.
“This bill is to give students a voice in expulsion and suspension hearings and a right to due process, which every parent should be concerned about,” Morris said in a statement.
Protections of the bill do not extend to students facing charges of academic dishonesty, but the changes would affect all University Judiciary Committee trials and any non-academic Honor Committee trials.
University officials have concerns about fundamental parts of the bill, and hope the legislature will choose to revisit the subject after the current legislative session ends, University spokesperson McGregor McCance said.
“The University is not in support of the legislation, primarily because of concerns about how it might impact our student self-governance,” McCance said in an email.
UJC Chair David Ensey, a fourth-year Engineering student, said the bill threatens the Committee’s central idea that “students are the best judges of student behavior.”
Joseph Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties advocacy group, said he does not believe students, or even administrators, are appropriate judges in most non-academic disciplinary cases.
“When the charges are about serious crimes, it really doesn’t matter if a student or an administrator is trying the accused student — there’s a 5th amendment concern here,” he said. “The other thing is that maybe it’s worth questioning whether students should be making these decisions. Are students reasonably equipped to make these judgements? They aren’t forensic experts.”
Morris said he sees the bill as a mechanism to protect students from each other.
“The punitive effects from these university hearings can adversely affect the student for the rest of their life,” he said.
If Morris’ bill passes, students facing expulsion or suspension of more than 10 days would have the right to a licensed attorney or a non-attorney advocate of their choice.
This language has strong implications for UJC, Ensey said.
“As written, [the bill] has the potential to dramatically and negatively alter the disciplinary process at the University,” he said in an email.
Cohn said the current system is fundamentally unfair to students.
“All across the country, Virginia in particular, we see students charged with crimes and are forced to defend themselves against administrators and deans,” he said. “Professional counsel is needed to keep this fair.”
UJC has not expelled a student in several years. Still, since all UJC cases could technically result in expulsion, “every case heard by the UJC would be subject to the requirements of the bill,” Ensey said.
Right to student counsel is already available to students undergoing UJC trials. While UJC counselors, who have been put through a semester-long training program, are typically assigned to accused students, the accused may also choose their counsel from within the University student body. Students may also have professional counsel advise them throughout the UJC process, but a student must represent the accused before a UJC trial panel, Ensey said during an interview on Jan. 31.
The state will not fund a student’s legal representation under Morris’ bill — a stipulation Ensey says could be a “real and serious consequence.”
“Students without the financial resources to retain professional legal counsel would be disadvantaged,” Ensey said. “This outcome seems at odds with a common sense understanding of due process.”
Cohn said this is only a minor problem and could easily be solved.
“Right now, the status quo is that no students can have a lawyer,” he said. “When you remove that door, it opens up a lot of resources — family member and pro bono lawyers for example. The other thing is that nothing is preventing the University or student government from providing legal resources.”
The legislation also stipulates that if a student’s punishment is reversed through an appeals process, they could be compensated for attorney fees along with other relevant damages.
The House Committee on Education is currently considering the bill. If presented and passed, the bill will come into effect July 1.
This article was updated from its original version.