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August 27, 2013

Who's Afraid of Lawyers?

Reporting on a first-in-the-nation law passed in North Carolina, Inside Higher Ed's Allie Grasgreen spoke to three administrators in the UNC system, plus a "Dear Colleague" letter defender. The law will require colleges to allow most students accused before public university disciplinary panels to be represented by an attorney. (Duke, naturally, will continue to deny its students such a right.)

UNC-Asheville's vice chancellor for student affairs expressed skepticism about the law, commenting that the college disciplinary process differs from the legal process, since "a key component of the developmental process of responding to student misconduct is for the student to take responsibility for their own behavior and to learn from the incident." But what happens if an accused student is innocent? The vice chancellor's statement seems to presume guilt--how can an innocent student "take responsibility" for something he didn't do?

The vice chancellor also hilariously suggested that the law might deny accused students the "learning experience" of speaking up on their own behalf.

The "Dear Colleague" letter apologist scowled that "whoever's able to hire the best and most expensive attorney is likely to win the day." I'd propose that if the mere act of having a good attorney identify weaknesses in the college's case is enough to collapse the college's case, then maybe the college didn't have much of a case to begin with.

Grasgreen points to unnamed "officials" suggesting that the bill's allowing students to have a lawyer or a non-attorney advocate represent them "opens up the door to the most affluent students essentially paying their way out of responsibility." This interpretation is nothing short of bizarre. As I wrote about an earlier and less clear version of the bill, if anything this clause could provide an opening for a particularly malicious college administration to try to deny students a lawyer, on grounds that they can have a non-attorney advocate instead. Fortunately, the interpretation of which I feared no longer seems to be on the table. In any case, if these unnamed officials are so concerned about poorer students not being able to hire attorneys, perhaps they can urge North Carolina's law schools to provide pro bono representation for such students.

The bill, to some extent, relies on the good faith of the state's public universities to operate effectively. Grasgreen's article provides no confidence that this good faith will be forthcoming.

A final note: I've already written of the ill-concealed bias that Grasgreen displays in ostensibly neutral, hard-news articles about allegations of campus sexual assault. That bias appears to have carried over to general due process questions. For this article, she quoted from five people--four of whom seemed hostile to the law's provisions. The article doesn't quote from defense attorneys or local legislators who voted for the bill; only a FIRE representative was quoted in support, and Grasgreen carefully identified FIRE as a backer of the bill. (Did any of her hostile interviewees oppose or even lobby against the bill? The article doesn't say.) Grasgreen even presents a wild theory (sourced to unidentified "student affairs officials") that a law requiring colleges to allow students accused of campus offenses to hire a lawyer might also force schools to "provide" sexual assault accusers with an attorney. Even the "Dear Colleague" letter doesn't order colleges to deny accused students a lawyer.

And, by the way, in perhaps the most politically polarized state in the country, the measure passed the North Carolina House by a 112-to-1 margin. An inconvenient fact, the overwhelming, bipartisan tally doesn't make it into Grasgreen's article.

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