If your college or university accuses you of any form of academic dishonesty, you could face serious consequences. In the worst-case scenario, your school might permanently expel you and “blackball” you from enrolling in any other school. Nevertheless, you can still fight back if you know how to do it.
What Is Academic Dishonesty?
Academic dishonesty takes many forms, all of them involving some type of deceit or sabotage. Just about any college will codify its standards of conduct, and these standards are broadly similar no matter where you enroll. The general principle is that an act constitutes academic dishonesty if it involves the use of unauthorized assistance with the intent of deceiving the institution or its staff or gaining an unfair advantage over other students.
Common forms of academic dishonesty include:
- Plagiarism (passing off someone else’s creative work as your own);
- Cheating on a test;
- Fabricating research results;
- Sabotage of materials used by other students; and
- Failure to report another student’s academic dishonesty (at some schools).
The foregoing is only a brief summarization of the most common forms of academic dishonesty, not an exhaustive list.
Academic Dishonesty: Examples
Following are some concrete examples of activities that constitute academic dishonesty:
- Unauthorized use of a calculator during a math test;
- Failure to include quotation marks when quoting another writer in a paper authored by you;
- Writing test answers on the inside of your forearm for use during a test;
- Peeking at another student’s answer sheet;
- Unauthorized collaboration with another student;
- Falsification of sources in a research paper;
- Paraphrasing material written by another in a manner that is too close to the original (a form of plagiarism);
- Dishonest excuses for failure to submit work on time (“my dog ate it”);
- Using someone else’s work without permission, including the work of another student;
- Removing books, software, or lab materials from the library so that other students cannot use them to prepare for an exam or assignment; and
- Sharing exam answers with another student before the exam.
Universities take these kinds of actions seriously, and they can have far-reaching consequences.
Academic Dishonesty: Punishment
Colleges and universities implement a variety of different punishments for academic dishonesty. Most institutions allow for graduated penalties, with the most serious penalties reserved for the most serious offenses or for repeat offenders. Some of the typical penalties for academic dishonesty include:
- A verbal or written reprimand;
- Requirement that the student rewrite a paper or retake an exam;
- A failing grade on a test with no opportunity for makeup;
- Reduction in course grade;
- Failing a course;
- Notification of academic dishonesty on your permanent record;
- Mandatory attendance at an academic honesty class;
- Suspension from the school;
- Being barred from entering school property; and
- Permanent expulsion from the institution.
Some of these penalties are determined by school administration, while others are determined by individual professors.
How to Respond to an Accusation
If your school accuses you or formally charges you with academic dishonesty, the first place you should look is your student handbook. Your student handbook should establish the rules that you are expected to follow, and it should state the consequences of academic dishonesty as well as the process for determining whether you violated the student conduct code.
At most schools, you will have a chance to state your case at a live hearing. Carefully review the exact charges against you—not just “cheating on a test” but fact-based specifics, such as “recording test material on your cell phone and peeking at it during the test.” It is important that you check the standard of review. Most schools apply “a preponderance of the evidence” or a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, the latter of which is more favorable to you.
In the internet age, evidence for an academic dishonesty hearing can get complex. Your school can gather evidence from school networks (access to which may be limited to school officials), your computer, your smart phone, or your tablet. They may gain access to your internet search terms on university computers. The school might even demand access to evidence within your possession, such as your email account, and many other sources.
Do I Have the Right to an Attorney?
Some schools will allow you to bring an attorney with you to a disciplinary hearing, and some won’t. Public schools are more likely than private schools to allow this. Check your student handbook or your school’s rules on representation. Keep in mind, however, that a lawyer can help you even if your school does not allow them to accompany you to a disciplinary hearing.
How an Attorney Can Help
An attorney can help you draft your response to the charges against you, assemble witnesses in your favor, gather relevant evidence from both the school and your personal devices, find holes in the evidence against you, and craft an overall defense strategy. As the lawyers at E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy can explain, your lawyer can also help you review the school’s evidence and make sure that the school adheres to its own published standards.
Your academic dishonesty attorney can also help you gather factual evidence that will dispute the school’s version of events. You might not have been online, for example, when the school claims you were. You might not have accessed the work that the school claims you plagiarized. A skilled attorney will know how to gather and analyze all relevant evidence and help you prepare for your hearing. Your lawyer can also help you appeal an adverse decision, even to a federal court if necessary.
Can I Appeal to a Federal Court?
Under certain circumstances you can appeal an adverse disciplinary judgment to a federal court, demanding reversal of the judgment and the penalty. A lot depends, however, on whether you are attending a public school or a private school. Your position is likely to be better if you are attending a public school.
Public schools, unlike private schools, must respect their students’ “due process” rights under the US Constitution. This principle applies to government entities with respect to a variety of Constitutional rights. It explains, for example, why Bob Jones University was permitted to ban interracial dating even though public universities may not discriminate in this manner.
In particular, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution prevent public universities from depriving any student of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” This restriction means that colleges and universities must observe certain procedural safeguards of fairness. In cases of expulsion or suspension for disciplinary reasons (rather than academic reasons), the school must offer:
- The right to a hearing;
- The right to standardized procedures (they cannot be arbitrarily chosen for each individual case);
- The right to notice of the charges against you;
- The right to know of the evidence that the school will be relying on;
- The right to appear at the hearing and state your case; and
- The right to a neutral decision-maker.
You might enjoy other rights, such as the right to an attorney, under certain circumstances.
Private schools enjoy far more flexibility in setting student disciplinary procedures, even if they rely heavily on federal funding. They are not obligated to respect student due process rights. Ordinary contract law, however, requires them to act in accordance with their own stated disciplinary policies. If the university promises students a disciplinary hearing to resolve any charges, for example, then it must keep that promise on pain of breach of contract.
One ironic consequence of this state of affairs is that if a private school promises you procedural safeguards that exceed minimum due process standards, it must proceed to offer them to you. Since you paid tuition, you can take a university to court for failing to keep its promises. In such a case, your cause of action would be based in contract law rather than constitutional law.
The “Arbitrary and Capricious” Restriction
Private schools may not treat students in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner. Unfortunately, however, courts cannot agree on exactly what this is, except to the extent that a school’s conduct must be outrageous for an “arbitrary and capricious” defense to stand a chance.
The federal Constitution governs due process rights, while state common law governs contract rights. By contract, it is federal statutory law that generates the right to privacy, at least as it applies to the privacy of student disciplinary records. Federal law limits the right of a school to release school disciplinary records to third parties.
Student Disciplinary Procedures Move Rapidly—You Have No Time to Waste
If you have been accused of academic dishonesty, be aware that the wheels of justice (or injustice) move quickly. The longer you wait to respond, the greater the risk is that you will be railroaded into a penalty that could inconvenience you or even devastate your life.