To Love and Die in Dixon: An Argument for Stricter Judicial Review in Cases of Academic Misconduct

By Byrom, Jack E. | The Review of Litigation, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

To Love and Die in Dixon: An Argument for Stricter Judicial Review in Cases of Academic Misconduct


Byrom, Jack E., The Review of Litigation


I. INTRODUCTION ........................................................................ 147

II. THE EVOLUTION OF DUE PROCESS FOR STUDENTS AT TAX-SUPPORTED COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES ............................. 150

A. The Dawn of Due Process: Dixon v. Alabama .............. 150

B. A Cloud over the Dawn: Academic Dismissals .............. 152

III. The Rationale Behind the Academic Distinction and Its Application in the Judicial Process ................................. 154

A. The Case for Academic Aversion .................................... 154

B. The Application of the Academic Distinction .................. 156

1. Grades ......................................................... 156

2. The Decision to Award a Degree ......................... 158

3. Academic Dismissals .................................... 159

4. Cheating and Plagiarism .................................. 160

5. "Non-Academic" Issues .................................... 162

IV. The Academic Nature Test: A Stricter Judicial Review of Sanctions Against Students ........................................ 164

A. The Academic Nature Test .............................................. 164

B. Application of the Academic Nature Test ........................ 166

1. Grades ........................................................ 166

2. The Decision to Award a Degree ........................ 167

3. Academic Dismissals .................................... 167

4. Cheating and Plagiarism .................................. 168

5. "Non-Academic" Issues ................................... 1 69

V. CONCLUSION ........................................................................... 169

I. Introduction

On May 8, 2010, Alabama State University honored several students by presenting them with diplomas during its spring commencement ceremony.1 Although this event may seem unremarkable, for those six students, it was the honor of a lifetime. To St. John Dixon, Joseph Peterson, James McFadden, Joe Reed, and the other students who were honored,2 it provided closure on a dark chapter not only of their lives, but also for all of society in the United States. The diplomas were conferred fifty years after the students were expelled for their participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.3 These students were honored for their efforts to provide equality and hope for people of all races for years to come. Nevertheless, their actions had an unintended consequence; their expulsion from Alabama State College and the ensuing litigation changed the way courts review universities' handling of student misconduct.

Fifty years ago, those expelled students sued the Alabama State Board of Education on the ground that their expulsion denied them due process pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment.4 In a landmark ruling, and stemming from its desire to lay the foundation for equality, the Fifth Circuit held that public colleges and universities must extend due process rights to their students in disciplinary hearings.5 Nevertheless, the progeny of Dixon has caused confusion regarding the contours of the due process rights afforded to students. Under Fifth Circuit precedent, if a student faces action by a university for academic reasons, rather than disciplinary ones, that student is not entitled to due process, and the courts will not step in to review such decisions.6 This doctrine was based on a desire to prevent every academic decision made by a school, from admission to graduation, from being scrutinized by the courts,7 but it carried with it an unintended consequence - confusion.8 Public universities and colleges around the nation do not always state the grounds for an academic punishment, and in many circumstances, discipline against students involves academic sanctions.9 What, then, is the proper due process standard for these students? Fifty years after the groundbreaking case of Dixon, it appears that, in the context of academic disciplinary proceedings, students have gained little due process traction. …

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