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Proving a negative: Being the accused in a university disciplinary hearing

Most people, here in America and across the globe, are familiar with a legal principle known as “the presumption of innocence.” This concept is more commonly referred to in pop culture and everyday conversation as “innocent until proven guilty.”

While the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” may be a common thread in Hollywood or modern-day legal themed literature, the principle itself is very old. Even in the time of the Roman Empire, the idea that an individual was presumed to be without fault unless his or her accuser could prove otherwise was written into the law. This principle has been adopted into modern law here in America and across the globe—the United Nations declared the presumption of innocence to be an international human right.

In short, this ancient legal principle appeals to our common ethical belief that the burden of proving a harm or crime lies solely with the person making the accusation, not the person who is accused and is denying any wrongdoing. In a court of law, the prosecution, in a criminal case, and the plaintiff, in a civil case, is said to have the burden of proof—the obligation to prove each element of his/her case—while the accused bears no burden to prove his/her innocence (criminal) or lack of liability (civil).

University disciplinary hearings, however, are not a court of law. Accordingly, a university disciplinary office cannot order a student to serve time in a local jail for violating university rules; yet, a university can impose fines and other disciplinary sanctions, including but not limited to: dismissal from the university, disciplinary suspension, no contact orders with campus or other students, assessments and treatment programs, and orders to pay restitution.

Even if a student cannot be incarcerated by a university for violating university rules, that does not mean that a finding of responsibility for a violation of the code of conduct for academic or disciplinary misconduct is meaningless. A student that is accused of violating university rules can be expelled or be sanctioned with a multiple-semester suspension that is essentially a dismissal from the university because of the substantial delay in the student’s ability to complete his or her degree. Even violations that do not result in suspensions are still reported on a student’s disciplinary file and could be seen by graduate schools if released by the student as part of the application process.

While a disciplinary hearing at Miami University does not come with the same substantial risk of loss of liberty that a court proceeding carries, that disciplinary hearing also does not come with the same protections as a court of law. The rules of evidence do not apply and do not prohibit an accuser from offering purely self-serving hearsay and speculative testimony as proof of wrongdoing. An accused student’s right to counsel is substantially limited despite being required to participate in a proceeding with a legal standard of preponderance of the evidence. And perhaps even more concerning, there is no guarantee or right that an accused student must be presumed innocent.

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