2-21-20 Legacy of Dixon v Alabama

Sixty Years Since the Sit-Ins, the Legal Legacy of Dixon v. Alabama

By Adam Wolkoff, Assistant Director, Student Conduct Institute

On February 22, 1960, college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparked a series of nationwide protests when they began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. Three days later, on February 25, African-American students attending Alabama State College took “whites-only” seats at a lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse. The restaurant closed rather than serve them.  After another 90 minutes in the courthouse, the protesting students returned to campus. None were arrested for any crime connected to the protest and all were exercising First Amendment protected speech on an issue of public concern. 

After the sit-in, Alabama Governor John Patterson called Alabama State College President Harper Trenholm to demand the expulsion of any students who attended that protest. President Trenholm asked for leniency. A week of protests by African American activists followed, along with attacks on African Americans in the streets of Montgomery by white men armed with baseball bats.

Bypassing President Trenholm, Governor Patterson directed the Alabama State Board of Education to expel nine students and put twenty on probation for participating in the protests. The Board sent letters to the students claiming the right to expel them without notice or a hearing under the university’s in loco parentis authority. 

Hundreds of Alabama State students joined mass rallies to protest the expulsions, supported by the national civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy.

The students challenged their expulsions in court, insisting that they were entitled to due process under the U.S. Constitution before the college could expel them. With the assistance of attorneys from the NAACP, the students brought an appeal to Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Dixon v. Alabama State Bd. of Ed.,  294 F.2d 150 (5th Cir. 1961), cert. denied, 368 U.S. 930 (1961), the Fifth Circuit held that students attending public universities had a protected interest in remaining in good standing and completing their education, and, therefore, were entitled to a minimum level of due process protections prior to being expelled for misconduct.

As colleges and universities roiled with campus demonstrations through the 1960s, the Fifth Circuit’s due process framework rose to prominence. It became the benchmark for student conduct cases held at public universities.&nbsp Dixon required that public university students be afforded, at a minimum, the following “rudimentary elements of fair play” prior to a determination:

  • Notice: The notice should contain a statement of the specific charges and grounds which, if proven, would justify expulsion under the institution’s rules.  
  • Hearing: The nature of the hearing should vary depending upon the circumstances of the particular case. It must be something more than an informal interview. The hearing must give the institution an opportunity to hear both sides “in considerable detail.” But it does not need to be a “full-dress judicial hearing, with the right to cross-examine witnesses.” 
  • Opportunity to be heard: The student should be given the names of adverse witnesses against him and an oral or written report on the facts to which each witness testifies, and should be given the opportunity to present a defense against the charges and to produce either oral testimony or written affidavits of witnesses in his behalf. 
  • Written report: If the hearing is not before the Board directly, the results and findings of the hearing should be presented in a report open to the student’s inspection 

The due process revolution fostered by Dixon is central to all campus disciplinary processes today, largely ending in loco parentis at American universities and guaranteeing a process that included a “fair hearing” where the student would be apprised of the charges and permitted to mount a defense.

Sixty years later, First Amendment issues of speech and protest, issues of fairness in treating students and in loco parentis, and discussions of just how much process is due are still raging in higher education circles. The legacy of St. John Dixon and his fellow students is a strong one, which has contributed to changing the nature of the relationship between institutions and our students.