By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

Law Review: The Relationship Between Due Process and Disciplinary Action

Although the Constitutional outlook on private and public universities varies in many regards, the right of students to due process must be upheld in both types of institutions. Private colleges and universities do not have complete autonomy over the disciplinary actions they take against their students; student suspensions and expulsions cannot be dealt solely from the discretion of a university. 

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution says, on a federal level, that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” States were later extended this legal obligation when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. 

In order to understand the place of due process in universities, generally, we must first understand its relationship with public education institutions, specifically.

In 1975, after students received a 10-day suspension without a hearing from Central High School in Columbus, Ohio, they filed a class-action lawsuit against the Columbia Board of Education and several school administrators. The school’s action was well supported by state law; Ohio Revised Code § 3313.66 allowed the principal to suspend students for 10 days or expel them and required that parents be phoned within 24 hours. It also allowed expulsions to be appealed to the Board of Education, but not suspensions. The plaintiffs argued that by denying them a hearing prior to their suspension, the school had violated their constitutional right of due process — and the court agreed.

In this case of Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted them declaratory and injunctive relief because they were “suspended without hearing prior to suspension or within a reasonable time thereafter.” On appeal by the school, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision that public schools were constitutionally bound to abide by due process when taking disciplinary action. 

The Due Process Clause specifically defends a person’s life, liberty, or property. In Goss v. Lopez, the court decided that the students’ education were considered a property interest and their reputation and integrity qualified as liberty. Therefore, given that students’ property and liberty were being challenged by the Ohio public school’s 10-day suspension, the disciplinary procedure required due process. 

The case recognized that institutions of public education — as instruments of the state — must adhere to the due process clause when administering disciplinary actions. Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, 294 F.2d 150 reached a similar conclusion about public education institutions; the court concluded in 1961 that disciplinary actions taken by a public college against a student must require notice and an opportunity for a hearing.

Those cases did not, however, define the boundaries of a school’s disciplinary protocol that would qualify as sufficient due process. Furthermore, due process as it applies to private colleges was not addressed. Nancy Jean Tedeschi’s suit, in Tedeschi v. Wagner College, 49 N.Y.2d 652, against Wagner College, a private institution, lends insight into this relationship. 

Enrolling in Wagner College in September of 1976, Tedeschi experienced social and academic challenges, received two incomplete grades for courses, and was recorded to be behaving in class as “irrational” and “disruptive.” The following January, the academic dean initiated a phone call to discuss Tedeschi’s academic situation, but her mother refused to participate. Soon after, Tedeschi made phone calls harassing her Latin professor, resulting in an oral notification that she was suspended because of “her bad character” and “repeated disruption of her Latin class.” A meeting later took place between her, the academic dean, the dean of students and an assistant to the president of the college. The dean of students later notified Tedeschi that she was being withdrawn from her Spring classes and could reapply in the fall; her Spring tuition was consequently refunded. Her mother admitted in court that she had called the school several times to arrange a hearing, but to no avail.

When Tedeschi sued Wagner College, she asked for an order reinstating her and her damages. The trial court said that no constitutional violation took place and ruled in favor of the college. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed that decision. Interestingly, both courts acknowledged the Wagner College’s guidelines which entitle a student facing suspension or expulsion to a hearing from a college court, the right to be heard by the Student-Faculty Hearing Board, and have those findings presented to the president of the college for a final decision. The courts held that Tedeschi had refused several opportunities to “arrange a conference,” and the university was, therefore, within its rights to withdraw her.

The New York Court of Appeals, however, reversed the decision of the lower courts, explaining that a private educational institution must abide by its own precepts to suspend a student. Wagner College’s 1976-1977 guidelines stated, "A student may be suspended or expelled from the College by the Dean of Students or the Dean of Academic Affairs. If he is suspended or expelled for any cause other than failure in his academic work, and has not had recourse to a hearing before an established College Court, he shall have the right to be heard by the Student-Faculty Hearing Board which shall present its findings to the President of the College for final determination." Therefore, Wagner College’s failure to suspend and withdraw Tedeschi in accordance with their policy was unconstitutional.

The outcome of Tedeschi v. Wagner College has far-reaching implications. It essentially defines the boundaries of due process to be those outlined by the university, binding the administration to their own, self-decided procedures of disciplinary action.

The headnotes of this case differentiated between academic and nonacademic grounds of suspension or expulsion. On nonacademic grounds, it explained, private colleges and universities must adhere to their own procedural guidelines in dealing with disciplinary matters for students. Regarding academic grounds, it becomes a bit more complex. Those matters usually pertain to academic standards which are subject to the discretion of educators, warranting judicial scrutiny. Nevertheless, the court’s determining factors for suspensions or expulsions on academic grounds rely on whether the institution acted in good faith or the punishment was arbitrary or irrational.

The opinion of the judges in Tedeschi’s case discussed the complexities of viewing a private college’s relationship to its students more as a contractual agreement, rather than a private institution which is mandated to abide by due process. See Galiani v. Hofstra Univ., 118 A.D.2d 572. 

In Galiani, the Supreme Court of Nassau County originally annulled Hofstra University’s — a private university — sanctions against a student, and ordered the university to reinstate the student from his suspension. After the student filed for an injunction, the court reviewed and reversed their judgment. The court saw that the student was afforded every right of a disciplinary proceeding, as outlined in Hofstra University’s regulations. Additionally, that suspension was deemed to be under reputable and honest discretion, thereby not arbitrary or capricious. Moreover, the punishment relative to the student’s offense was matched and would not question a sense of fairness. Given those details, the court held the student was not denied his right to due process.

As seen from the courts’ rulings and opinions, due process is a constitutional right well afforded on the college campus. Public universities must abide to stricter guidelines of due process when disciplinary action is taken against students, and private universities must follow the parameters they have registered as university protocol. All in all, if faced with the consequences of your actions by your university — whether public or private — know that your right to due process will not be compromised.

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