Student Rights on the College Campus

For the past two years, I have taught an introductory law course at Brandeis University. Each semester, I invite the students to submit legal questions they would like to discuss. Overwhelmingly, the questions that I am asked most often relate to students’ rights on campus: When can campus police enter my room? Can I refuse to let them in? How can the school punish me for something that happens off campus?

Of course, as a good teacher, I answer these questions with one of my own: Were you issued a student handbook upon orientation? The answer: Yes. Next question: Did you read it? The usual answer: Not really.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that an eighteen-year-old would care little about the information conveyed in a student handbook. However, the handbook governs the students’ relationship with the university, and contains provisions that impact their freedom of speech and congregation, right to privacy and due process rights in disciplinary proceedings. In addition, the handbook typically explains the rights of students (and their parents) to access, inspect and request changes to their educational records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The student handbook of your child’s university or college may very well be the first “contract” they enter into as adults. Most schools today require students to sign a document at freshman orientation indicating that they have read and understand the student handbook. In Massachusetts, courts have held that the student handbook has the force and effect of a contract.

More likely than not, your child will never have to worry about the provisions set forth in the student handbook—but what an excellent opportunity for parents to teach their kids—now adults—an essential tenant of contract law: read before you sign.

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