Do You Know Your Rights on Campus?

College students have enough to worry about without thinking about specific legal rights they may or may not have. But as with any situation, it's important to know what's in your power before you enroll in college.

By Sarah Wright


What's Allowed on Campus?

For most college students, legal rights on campus aren't really an issue. Attending class and socializing likely doesn't require a lot of thought about whether your rights are being violated or whether lawbreaking is occurring - typically, college students know which of their recreational activities are legal or not, and plagiarism is fairly well understood by most students by the time they reach college. Additionally, individual campuses might have different rules and regulations that are defined by admission and dorm residence agreements.

For instance, while it may be totally illegal for any student to have alcohol in a dorm at one school, others may be much more permissive. Some schools even require dorm residents to sign an agreement submitting to random room searches for contraband material. Others operate on a standard warrant-for-search procedure. Paying attention to any agreements you sign and any rules stated in student handbooks can be an important aspect of knowing your rights on campus.

Other Rights

Personal rights aren't the only ones to be concerned about on campus. There are certain academic and privacy rights that are covered by law in the U.S. as well. The most important law to be familiar with in this area is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows students and families access to, and control over, academic records. This law applies mostly to parents and families in pre-college educational settings, but these rights transfer to the student upon turning age 18 or enrolling in a postsecondary school, whichever comes first.

Under FERPA, students have the right to see their educational records and request changes to these records. They also have the right to keep their grades private from anyone who might want to see them without permission - including parents and future employers. Thanks to this law, college students can reasonably expect that school faculty and staff won't discuss their grades and academic performance with anyone but themselves.

The Limits of FERPA

FERPA is a long and complex law that hints at rights and restrictions beyond academic records. However, like any law, there is room for interpretation of what it covers. For example, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court case Gonzaga University v. Doe resulted in a ruling that FERPA does not protect students from certain civil rights violations. In the case, a student, known as 'John Doe,' sued the school and an employee for using information about his or her personal sexual conduct to judge the student morally unfit to work as an elementary school teacher. So while FERPA can prevent future employers from snooping about your grades, it isn't the law to use as a shield against your personal conduct being used against you in the future.

A school that shows too much disregard for its students rights might not be the best place to earn your degree.

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