In the upcoming weeks, UC Berkeley officials will be meeting to finalize changes to the student code of conduct that could prevent students from having legal representatives during on-campus hearings. The potential change in policy leaves many students worried about their due process rights on a campus well-known for civil unrest.
According to UC administration sources, the student code of conduct is normally revised every five to six years.
Last Friday, the Student Code of Conduct Review Committee (SCCRC)—charged with overseeing the changes—delayed a scheduled meeting on the matter for two weeks. Students, nonetheless, held a press conference Friday outside California Hall to let the administration know that they will continue to demand representation and other due process rights during campus hearings.
“It’s a very slippery slope and we don’t want to slide down it,” said Boris Sorsher, a member of the campus American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), about possible changes to the code.
According to Neil Rajmaira, UC Berkeley’s student judicial officer, students are currently allowed to be represented by a lawyer or anyone of their choosing during on-campus hearings. But last March, the SCCRC tentatively voted that students could only be allowed to be represented by attorneys if it were deemed necessary by the hearing panel. Although this was considered a compromise position at the time, students want the SCCRC to reverse its vote and return to full attorney representation. In addition, students say they are worried that the SCCRC might vote at the next meeting to further erode student representation rights.
“This essentially will set the tone for the next five or seven years,” said Sorsher. “If they implement these rules it could restrict liberties in the future as well.”
Proponents of the changes say they are trying to make the hearing process more educational and less adversarial. They say students learn more from the process when they represent themselves. Students say that the consequences they can face are serious enough to merit representation by a lawyer.
Last November, Ronald Gronsky, a professor in the Engineering department who co-chaired the committee responsible for updating the codes, told the Berkeley Daily Planet that the changes were also meant to bring UC Berkeley’s policies into line with the rest of the UC System.
Calls placed to other UCs, however, find that they have varied policies for on-campus hearings. UC Santa Barbara allows students to have lawyers advise them during hearings but not speak for them. At UCLA, students can have lawyers represent them or advise them and do not need permission from the hearing panel. At UC Davis, lawyers can represent students during hearings where the penalties are suspension or expulsion. They can only advise students when the penalty is probation.
All the campuses, including Berkeley, also have non-lawyer university officials who can advise or, if allowed, represent students.
Several of the university officials in charge of hearings at other campuses said they believed in making the process educational but also thought it was important right to have an attorney, especially if the student is facing criminal charges outside the university for the same incident.
“Any form of representation oftentimes allows for better communication,” said Brian A. Carlisle, Assistant Dean of Students for UCLA. “It’s not fair to have a student face charges that are major at a university and not let them have representation.”
Jeanne Wilson, director of student judicial affairs for UC Davis, said the university encourages students to seek legal advice or representation if the student faces criminal charges along with their campus charges. She said though lawyers can bog a hearing down, more often they facilitate the process and make it more comfortable for the students.
Neither Carlisle nor Wilson know of any law that says students are guaranteed representation.
“I’m not aware of any California case that definitively says that students at a public university have the right to attorney in a disciplinary process,” said Wilson, who practiced law in California for several years before joining UC Davis.
The issue of due process for students at UC Berkeley is particularly timely because of several high profile on campus cases within the past couple of years. Most recently, three students faced campus charges for their participation in an anti-war demonstration and sit-in when the war broke out in Iraq.
Two of them could receive letters of warning that stay in their campus file and are reportable on graduate school applications, if they apply for government jobs, or waive their rights to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
The anti-Iraq-war student protesters were allowed representation at their hearing, but had to fight to have open hearings, another issue students plan to address during the code of conduct committee’s next meeting. At one hearing, all three of the protesters walked out because the panel refused to open to it to the public. Sorsher from the campus ACLU said the university cites privacy reasons for trying to close hearings. Students say it is part of their due process rights to have them open.ª