On academic behavioral codes and “counseling out”

I have recently found myself participating in several group discussions concerning the subject of how we social work academics should go about drafting behavioral codes for our schools. Some have suggested adopting very inclusive codes that attempt to cover every possible instance of behavioral misconduct, including such things as “unprofessional use of speech,” “‘bad-mouthing’ of professors and schools,” and other questionable categories. Some have expressed the concern that failing to address sufficiently certain instances of behavioral misconduct might leave such behavior unchecked. I believe strongly that an analysis of 1st and 14th Amendment constitutional protections compels us to conclude that these provisions protect a student’s right to say and write many things that might make the majority of us unhappy. I therefore feel that a policy of “less is more” leaves schools as well as students better protected. Specifically, I think that limiting the definitional scope of behavioral misconduct to acts that are clear and unambiguous — including disruption of class and field environments, hate speech that is overtly threatening, plagiarism, as well as several related areas — protects schools from constitutional challenge and also secures the speech and privacy rights of students under the Constitution. I want to note that the impulse to regulate behavior as thoroughly as possible is understandable. However, overregulating student behavior is something we need to avoid. Put somewhat differently, it does not make sense to create important policy based mainly on a desire to address a very small minority of misbehaving students while purporting to restrict the vast majority of students who are entirely behaviorally compliant. In this sense — and I argue this both as a lawyer and a social worker — a constitutional analysis of limitations on behavioral codes both supplies the right legal “answer” and advances social work goals.

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