As a student in a public nursing education program, whether a baccalaureate, master’s or doctoral course of study, you possess certain rights that are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. You may not have thought about these protections, but they are essential entitlements you may need to utilize at some point during your educational journey.
The First Amendment is often used to challenge decisions of public academic institutions. This amendment safeguards your right to practice your religion, to speak freely, to write freely, to assemble peaceably and to file a case against the government if these rights are violated.
First Amendment challenges can occur when an academic institution curbs students’ rights to speak about or against certain issues and when the institution curtails support of student newspapers or student websites. In Stanley v. Magath, 719 Fed. 2d 279 (8th Circuit 1983), the court held that “a public university cannot take adverse action against a student newspaper, such as withdrawing or reducing the paper’s funding, because it disapproves of the content of the paper.” It also has been used to defend against limitations on a student’s right to demonstrate.
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It has been raised by students when their dorm room was searched without a reasonable basis. It also has been used when students challenged drug and alcohol testing policies adopted by the academic institution.
Although all amendments are important to individuals and students, perhaps the most important one is the Fourteenth Amendment. It requires that no state can deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law (the Fifth Amendment provides the same protections from actions by the federal government). The words life, liberty and property have unique meanings for students.
Liberty has been interpreted by the courts to mean that when a student is facing expulsion from a secondary institution’s educational program because of academic reasons, the student’s liberty or interest in attending another educational institution, and ultimately graduating and gaining employment, is threatened. As a result, due process protections, such as notice to the student of the potential for dismissal from a program and the opportunity to attempt to change the student’s behavior or increase a grade point average, is essential.
Likewise, property is not only something one owns, such as a house or a car. Property also has been defined as a student’s interest in continuing in an educational program and obtaining a degree. As a result, public academic institutions must provide clear due process protections before a student is dismissed from that program because of academic reasons.
Private college student rights
If you are a student in a private college or university program, you may wonder what rights you have. Because the U.S. Constitution and its amendments only apply to government action, constitutional protections are not afforded to you.
However, you do have rights as well. The protections include whatever the nursing education program grants to you in the school’s written documents (e.g., student handbook, course syllabi). As a student in a private nursing program, you could challenge an unfair dismissal if an aspect or aspects of those documents were violated. The basis of the challenge is the fact that the documents are seen as a contract between the student and the academic institution.
Another remedy you have if in a nonpublic school is to challenge an academic dismissal as arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory. Courts generally have held that if the educational program’s decision falls into one of these categories, the dismissal would not be upheld when challenged by a student.
Hopefully you’ll never need any of the protections afforded you in both a public or private academic nursing program when facing a dismissal from the school for academic reasons. If you do, though, keep in mind that there are legal safeguards available to objectively evaluate such a decision. A timely consultation with a nurse attorney or attorney practicing law in the area of higher education would be important.