The Reach of an Honor Code: Should Law Students Face Discipline for Serious Offenses Outside the Academic Community?

Standard protocol in academia includes the implementation of a code of conduct for matriculating students. These codes, often in the form of a student handbook or manual, typically govern student conduct in the internal community of an academic institution. Law schools have been particularly careful to provide students with an explanation of their rights and responsibilities due to the recognition that law school is a student’s first step toward becoming a member of the legal profession.  These codes of conduct undoubtedly cover a wide range of topics, but the consequences of student conduct outside of the academic community still remains ambiguous. This question is particularly important when considering the case of Charlotte School of Law 2L, Kenan Gay.

Kenan Gay was arrested after a March 3rd incident at a bar in Charlotte, NC. According to Police, Gay got into an altercation with Robert Kingston III at Ed’s Tavern in Dilworth and allegedly shoved him into the path of a moving vehicle. The car struck Kingston and he died from his injuries at the scene. Gay was released on March 14th, on a $100,000 secured bond, according to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office website. While the facts surrounding the case are still being determined as witnesses give contradicting accounts of the event; the court of public scrutiny has been in session ever since a second-degree murder charge was issued against Gay. At last check, officials at the Charlotte School of Law have not yet started the process of reviewing Gay’s standing at the law school. An accusation or criminal charge may imperil academic pursuits and even future careers in the legal profession. Many universities launch internal investigations into any accusations and hold interdisciplinary hearings to determine what discipline to impose – which may include academic probation, suspension, or expulsion.

Charlotte School of Law’s student rights and responsibilities manual does not address the potential standing of students charged with crimes; rather its Honor Code gives three broad principles in which sanctions may be imposed if violated.  These include: “Every law student shall perform all work in academic matters honestly; every law student shall act professionally, respectfully and with integrity; and every law student shall protect the integrity of the Honor Code and other Law School policies.” While these principles largely affect the involvement of students in academic affairs, there is still encompassing language that may impose sanctions upon a student for external criminal conduct.

According to the Charlotte School of Law official webpage, specific examples of Honor Code violations include, but are not limited, to: “Failing to immediately notify Charlotte School of Law of any federal, state or local charges or offenses that occurred after you were admitted to the law school.” Students are, therefore, required to provide information, identification, statements, or reports when requested to do so by School officials. These officials have the right to request such information from students at any time, including but not limited to, instances when they believe a violation of school policies, the Honor Code or applicable federal, state or local laws or ordinances may be implicated by conduct of the student or information that the students holds. Further, students shall not hinder, delay, provide false information, or otherwise obstruct school officials in the performance of their official duties.

By the above language found in Charlotte Law’s student manual, if Kenan Gay has complied with reporting his charged offenses, it appears that he has not violated the Honor Code of the school and may thereby avoid possible sanctions.  According to an interview with Gay, he plans on continuing with his law school studies after posting bail.  Although all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, there still seems to be something unsettling about a law student continuing class as usual with a charge of second-degree murder hanging over his head.

Professionals in the legal field pride themselves on being held to a higher ethical standard in a self-regulated profession. However, this higher ethical standard must have its genesis during one’s legal education and throughout their legal practice. Due to this heightened standard found in the legal profession, I would suggest a temporary probationary period for students charged with serious criminal offenses. I do not propose that every student with any criminal charge should be placed on probation, but an immediate investigation as to a student’s fitness must be evaluated before continuing in his or her legal studies. Kenan Gay’s situation has opened important questions relating to the aftermath of a criminal charge against a law student. There are many stories of former delinquents that have turned into all-star attorneys and judges, but are they the exception or the rule?

Not only may a second-degree murder charge affect one’s law school standing, it may undeniably affect admissions to the state bar, depending on the circumstances of each case. It is the responsibility of the administration to maintain the integrity of the school in assessing the appropriateness of allowing matriculating students facing serious criminal charges to remain in school without any action.  In a private school such as Charlotte Law, there is room to expand the student manual to include the possibility of a temporary probationary period subsequent to serious criminal charges without risking due process violations.

Although the schools’ authority to discipline students has generally not been extended to things that occur off-campus, there should be a shift based on one’s particular profession and the severity of the allegations against the student.  Kenan Gay may still have the opportunity to graduate from law school and become an outstanding attorney if proven innocent, and a probationary investigatory period should not affect that realistic outcome.  Unfortunately, this overbroad proposition gives innocent law students with criminal allegations an added burden of missing school and delaying graduation, but for the propriety of the school, it is a necessary pre-requisite to continued matriculation for students with very serious criminal charges.


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About Melanie Turnbull, Former Staff Writer (2 Articles)
Melanie graduated from Campbell Law School in 2013.
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