Do Your Legal Research Before Your Kid Picks a College

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Yes, this is a law-and-business column. But one of the biggest financial expenditures you’ll ever make is paying to send your kid to college.

Because it’s the season for high-school seniors to accept college admission offers, and because high-school juniors are forming their college-application lists, take a moment to research whether you will be at risk for losing your investment in college if your kid gets in trouble at school.

A recently enacted Virginia statute addresses part of this issue. First, some background:

On college campuses, there is a tug-of-war over free-speech rights. On some campuses, students are being forced to go through bias-reporting procedures, hearings, and discipline because of things they say or write.

Another big issue is the quality of due process rights given to students accused of infractions. This is a big issue lately for male students accused of sexual assault.

Concerning the free speech issue, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently signed into law a bill that protects First-Amendment free-speech rights on public college campuses in Virginia.

The new law states in its entirety: “Except as otherwise permitted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, no public institution of higher education shall abridge the constitutional freedom of any individual, including enrolled students, faculty and other employees, and invited guests, to speak on campus.”

Did this bill increase protection for free-speech rights of students in Virginia public colleges? No.

The law just states that a public college may not abridge constitutionally protected free-speech rights. The Constitution already prohibits doing that. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution makes Constitutional protections trump all other laws and college regulations. All this new law does is show the support of the Virginia legislature and governor for constitutionally protected free-speech.

So, as a parent, what can you do about these issues?

Get educated and choose wisely. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known as FIRE, maintains a database and rating system concerning free-speech and due-process rights on college campuses.

On its website,, you’ll find information on every college in America. The organization rates each college’s policies on these issues as red-light, yellow-light, or green-light.

Also, various publications cover these issues intensively. In the realm of fairly politically neutral sites, The Chronicle of Higher Education ( and Inside Higher Ed ( run many stories on these topics, in addition to covering other college issues.

Both Campus Reform ( and The College Fix ( are dedicated exclusively to reporting on abuses on specific college campuses. These are conservative websites, which may not be your cup of tea, but they do a great job of identifying and reporting on such incidents.

FIRE and each of these publications have Twitter accounts. Following them on Twitter is a good way to keep tabs on these issues.

In addition, follow on Twitter each of your candidate colleges, including any Twitter account dedicated to admissions. Many colleges have Twitter accounts dedicated to specific aspects of the schools. You will learn a lot about the values and priorities of colleges based upon what they say about themselves.

Finally, what should you do if your child gets flagged at college for one of these issues? Don’t go through whatever process the college created without legal counsel.

Some processes may lull your child or you into not getting a lawyer involved, at least initially. The first notice of trouble might just be a request that your child meet with a college official or a disciplinary panel.

Your child might admit things that shouldn’t be admitted, or might not realize the issue is being adjudicated on the spot.

Colleges must provide some minimal level of due process to students accused of offenses. The First Amendment protects free speech at least on public-college campuses and to some extent even at private colleges.

I would tell my child to call me ASAP at the first sign of any infraction or disciplinary problem. After that, I would immediately hire a lawyer in that college town who is experienced in dealing with disciplinary issues at that school. Don’t take a wait-and-see attitude.

Hopefully you and your child will find a perfect fit and have a wonderful college experience. But remember there is a risk you could lose your six-figure college investment and your child’s future could be permanently damaged if your child gets unfairly handled in one of these disciplinary systems. Don’t assume it can’t happen to your child. Do your research up front.

Written on April 18, 2017

by John B. Farmer

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