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Can Professors Ban Students From Classes?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 14, 2017 10:15 AM

A Duke University professor made waves last week when it was revealed that the syllabus for one of her courses included the warning: "Anyone who is on the staff of The Chronicle is not permitted to take this class." Members of the campus newspaper were rightfully miffed at the supposed ban, which, in the end, turned out to be a poorly worded attempt to stress confidentiality in the courses content.

But it does raise an interesting legal question about a professor's or a school's ability to ban certain students from specific courses. Is every class open to every student?

Clumsy Course Closure

The ban at issue was part of the syllabus for lecturing fellow of economics Linsey Lebowitz Hughes's "Inside Hedge Funds." As relayed by The Chronicle, the full notice read:

"Audio recordings of this class are not permitted and students will be asked to keep the information shared by some of our guest speakers confidential. Anyone who is on the staff of The Chronicle is not permitted to take this class. Please honor this in order that we can continue to get high quality visitors and information."

After the student paper drew attention to the ban, the syllabus was pulled, and Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld attempted to clarify matters, calling the prohibition "a clumsy attempt to indicate that guest speakers should be considered off the record."

"In any case, no student should or will or has ever been barred from enrolling in a class at Duke because of their affiliation with a student organization, whether it's The Chronicle or anything else," Schoenfeld told the Herald-Sun, adding "there's no indication" the ban had actually been enforced. But could it have been?

Class Access

Many collegiate courses require instructor consent. These are generally higher-level or work-intensive courses for which professors and instructors want to ensure their students are prepared before enrollment. Also, in classes with limited enrollment, spots can be reserved for students majoring in those areas.

These kinds of screenings and enrollment restrictions, especially at private schools, are generally legal as long as they apply equally to the entire student body. Courts normally give schools a lot of latitude when it comes to setting curriculum, educational standards, and, in most cases, student discipline. And while one professor's ban on particular students may have been a misunderstanding in this cases -- and certainly a PR headache had the school stood by it -- it might not have been illegal, per se. Thus far, courts have not recognized a First Amendment right to access to specific courses sufficient to override a school's interest in regulating enrollment.

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