by Gabe Walters, Legal Fellow
When students return to the University of Virginia this week and next, many will have a surprise waiting for them. The first time students log in to their online accounts this fall, they'll be required to answer whether they've been arrested or convicted of a crime.
The new policy represents a change from the old self-reporting system, and is part of the University's multi-pronged response to the gruesome slaying last May of Yeardley Love. George Huguely, accused of Love's murder, had been arrested previously for a violent and drunken encounter with a police officer, an incident he failed to report to the University. Officials say that if Huguely had reported that arrest, he almost certainly would have been suspended or expelled.
While gathering information on student arrests or convictions is not necessarily a violation of students' rights, what happens as a result might be.
According to media reports, students who answer that they have been convicted or arrested of a crime may face review by the University's Dean of Students, or perhaps the University Judiciary Committee or Honor Committee. This isn't so troubling in the case of convictions, but an arrest is merely an allegation of wrongdoing, not proof of guilt. Students who have been arrested--but not convicted--have good reason to fear what might result if they answer the University's inquiry truthfully.
If University officials insist on implementing this new policy, they should make it clear up front that there will be no adverse actions taken against students merely because they have been arrested.
Next they must describe the exact procedure that will be used to discipline students who have plead guilty to a crime or been convicted. At a minimum, this should include real due process, including the right to be represented by counsel, and it should define what kinds of convictions are likely to lead to what kinds of punishments.
As Michael Paul Williams has noted, the University of Virginia has crafted "an honor-system dragnet that would fail to distinguish the foolish or larcenous--the underage drinker or the shoplifter--from the truly dangerous." Now, before students begin the fall semester, is the time for UVA to get this straight with a clear, precise set of fair rules that every student knows and understands.
Otherwise, given the emotional atmosphere that has enveloped the school since the tragic details of the Huguely case have emerged, the dragnet could easily become a witch hunt.
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