I recently noticed that my university has a Covid-related policy stating that students are not permitted to attend public gatherings off-campus. Today, they officially stated that students breaking this rule can be expelled. The institution is private but receives federal funding.

While I understand the rationale behind this rule (and agree that going to parties etc. in these times of pandemic is not a responsible behavior), it raises the following question in my mind:

Can a university make rules about what students can and cannot do during their free time? I assume that they have a right to control and regulate events that involve their name and reputation (e.g. events organized by an official student association) but where is the limit? What about events that have nothing to do with the university? For instance, can they prevent their students from attending political events? Can they make rules about anything, e.g. "you cannnot eat burgers on Tuesdays" or something absurd like this?

Is the answer the same for employers and employees?

  • 4
    What does your contract with the university say? Does it reference the "code of conduct and policies"? – Trish Sep 7 '20 at 16:49
  • 1
    I'm not a lawyer, and I don't know how that rule actually is written in some code or handbook; but I woudld write it, not as rule about "what students [may] do during their free time," but as a rule about who is allowed to expose the campus community to a particular health risk. Students who have attended public gatherings are more likely to carry the virus and infect others. I would write that students who have exposed themselves to that risk are not allowed to come onto the campus and expose other students to the same. – Solomon Slow Sep 9 '20 at 17:18

With respect to disciplining its students and employees, a private school can basically do whatever it wants. There's more freedom to do so with respect to students than with employees, who have greater protections derived from anti-discrimination laws, collective-bargaining agreements, and the like.

If a private school wants to impose a No Burger Tuesdays and a complete ban on political activity, that's probably going to be permissible. The First Amendment will protect the school's right to associate with only those who meet its standards, as absurd as those standards may be. Again, there are exceptions to this rule, like Title IX, which requires equal educational opportunities regardless of sex, but they don't have much bearing on your question.

Even for a public school, there will be quite a bit of latitude here, because these rules don't actually regulate off-campus conduct. If a student wants to attend an off-campus public gathering, the campus police aren't going to lock him in his room or arrest him for leaving campus. The rule is simply that if you attend a public gathering off campus, you may not come back on campus afterward to threaten the lives of your classmates.

  • 13
    Not if a private school does it, generally speaking. The First Amendment only protects your religious freedom from infringement by the government. There are laws protecting students from discrimination on the basis of race, ethnitcity, and national origin, but not religion -- not at the federal level, at least. – bdb484 Sep 7 '20 at 18:10
  • 14
    @Mowgli There are lots of religious post-secondary institutions in the US that will expel a student who practices another religion. – Ross Ridge Sep 7 '20 at 18:35
  • 7
    "a private school can basically do whatever it wants." - Well, it has to abide by the contract it has with the student. It cannot simply make any arbitrary rule on a whim after the student has paid, and then expel the student with no refund. – D M Sep 7 '20 at 19:00
  • 6
    @emory But this is law stack exchange, so "do as it pleases" means in the context of the law and the contract, not what is considered reasonable by society or politically. – JBentley Sep 8 '20 at 11:31
  • 20
    I think the key here is, as you say correctly, that the school does not impose any restriction on a student's off-campus behavior. It simply states criteria for students which may enter the campus, in a way which is probably compatible with the contract. You should perhaps emphasize that more: The school cannot legally, and does not try to, regulate off-campus conduct, even if the wording appears to imply it, even though it feels like it, and even though the effective consequence is exactly that it does. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 8 '20 at 14:33

They can and must if what you do off-campus affects campus safety

Any organisation has a duty to protect the safety of its members. If one person poses a danger to others, that person must either change their behaviour or be removed. If neither happens and that person goes on to cause some harm to other people, the organisation as a whole and its management personally can be held legally responsible, both under criminal and civil law.

An obvious example of off-campus behaviour requiring you to be expelled would be criminal activity, especially violent or sexual crimes. These would naturally affect the safety of other people. Of course we know that organisations do not always follow their own rules in these cases, but that does not not absolve them of responsibility; if anything, it leaves them more open to criminal and civil proceedings by being knowingly negligent.

Now consider COVID-19. Unlike primary schools where one class tends to stay together, higher education tends to involve students gathering for one individual subject and then splitting up to gather together with other students for another individual subject. This basically puts an entire year group in a "bubble", which for a reasonable-sized university is clearly not effective for minimising contact. Universities have a further problem that students dine, socialise, and take part in clubs/teams across year groups. If one person becomes infected, this makes it remarkably hard for the university to lock down selectively to prevent a full-scale outbreak across the entire university.

As anyone studying safety engineering knows, if you can't mitigate the consequences then the other way to minimise the risk is to reduce the chances of it happening. The natural way to try to stop this happening is to try to stop people becoming infected in the first place - and so we come to the rule you've mentioned. In this case, the university's duty of care to their students (and employees) means that they need to ensure people going on campus have taken appropriate precautions.

Note by the way that if the student was studying 100% online, as many students in the UK are at the moment, they would not present a risk to other students and this rule would not apply to them. The issue is simply that when they come on campus, the university needs to be sure their behaviour off-campus does not makes them an on-campus risk.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.