Students: Do you know your legal rights?

Many college students in the United States are not aware of the rights that our laws afford to them, or are under the impression that when they set foot on a college campus they are waiving their rights. Students need to know their rights so as to better protect themselves from impropriety.

This article is not intended to be legal advice, and represents prior interpretations of the law. Any student facing legal issues should consult a lawyer on how to handle their specific case.

The United States does not have a codified bill of rights for students; students have rights based on the Constitution and case law. However, because there is no bill of rights, how case law precedent applies to particular cases can be disputed in the courts.

Students, like all Americans, have the right to remain silent. This right is granted by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. When students are being questioned by the police, they do not have to answer any questions that may incriminate them.

According to Miranda v. Arizona, police officers must inform students of this right upon making an arrest.

However, according to Salinas v. Texas, before being arrested, students must specifically invoke their right to remain silent. If a student refuses to talk without explaining that they are invoking their right to remain silent, that silence can be used against them.  

Students have the right to protection in their dorm room from unreasonable search and seizure. This right is granted by Piazzola v. Watkins. It means that just because students live in a dorm the police do not have the right to search the dorm without a search warrant or the student’s consent.

The dorm building belongs to the university; however, legally the student is renting the property from the school. The police cannot show up and search an off-campus apartment without a search warrant or consent. The same applies to dorm rooms.

If the police cannot establish probable cause, the police must ask for consent to search a dorm room, and unless they have a search warrant the student does not have to consent.

Students have the right to revoke consent to dorm search and seizure. This right is granted by Schneckloth v. Bustamonte. It means that even after a student has consented to a search of their dorm room and the search is underway, the student can revoke the consent to a search at any time, as long as over the course of the search probable cause has not yet been established.

The student must be clear and unambiguous that they are revoking their consent saying something to the effect of, “I revoke my consent to a search.”

If evidence against the student has been found, they lose the right to revoke consent, but at any time before that students have this right.

Students can also limit the scope of a search as long as it is defined before the search begins. For instance, if it is defined that the officer can only look for drugs, then the officer does not have the right to read papers that the student has in their dorm.

Students have the right to adherence to class syllabi. This right is granted by Goodman v. President and Trustees of Bowdoin College. The syllabus that a professor hands out is considered a contract between the professor and the student, and as such the professor cannot deviate from the syllabus.

For instance, if a student is handed a syllabus on the first day that says their grade is going to be determined by the results of three tests, the professor cannot then change how they derive the students grade, as this is a breach of contract.

Students have the right to privacy of student records. This right is granted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act. This means that unless the student wishes to share their school records they do not have to.

For instance, students have the right to not share their grades with their parents, and parents cannot force the student or the administration to share that information. Students may share if they wish, but they have the right to refuse.

Students have the right to due process in disciplinary action. This right is granted by Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education. It means that when students are facing disciplinary action the university must respect all of the rights afforded to them.

The difference between knowing the rights that are afforded to students and not can be the difference between spending the night in jail or not. Being knowledgeable of your rights serves only to protect you and will be nothing but an asset should you ever find yourself in trouble.

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