Thursday, June 16, 2011
C.A. Upholds Law School Suspension for Plagiarism, Academic Dishonesty
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The University of La Verne did not violate the rights of a third year law student suspended for plagiarism and academic dishonesty, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Three concluded Katarina Yu had failed to demonstrate that the law school dean’s decision to increase the discipline imposed against her after she appealed the ruling of a three-member disciplinary board arose from her exercise of free speech.
Last spring, while in her final semester at the private law school, Yu was enrolled in a contracts drafting class. An assignment in this course required students to work as “co-counsel” to prepare a coffee-supply contract on behalf of a seller. Yu was teamed with Hyung Ahn and Jeff Wirtes on this project. Another student, Alvin Koan was assigned the role of “opposing counsel.”
Yu apparently found a coffee-supply contract on the internet, which she emailed to Ahn and Wirtes. The contract which she subsequently prepared and submitted to the instructor allegedly included provisions from the online contract, as well as provisions prepared by Ahn.
In May 2010, a few days before the law school’s graduation ceremony, Yu was notified that she was being investigated for plagiarism and academic dishonesty. The school offered her a “plea bargain,” which she declined, but Ahn and Koan accepted. Wirtes was not charged with any wrongdoing.
A search of State Bar records indicates that none of the four have yet been licensed to practice in California.
The university brought formal charges against Yu last August, and a trial was held in September before a panel comprised of two faculty members and one student. The case against Yu was presented by a “special prosecutor” who was a faculty member.
Although the special prosecutor had asked the Judicial Board to expel Yu from the law school, the board elected to impose a lesser punishment of denying Yu credit for taking the course and entering a failing grade on her academic record.
Yu appealed the board decision to Allen K. Easley, dean of the law school.
Pursuant to the school’s Manual of Academic Policies and Procedure, the dean could reverse the board’s decision if “no reasonable person” would have issued the decision or if newly discovered evidence justifies a new hearing. It also provides that the dean “may impose a greater or lesser sanction than that imposed by the Judicial Board,” if he finds a different level of punishment is justified.
Yu contended she had been singled out for prosecution when other classmates who engaged in similar conduct were not prosecuted, the course syllabus was ambiguous about what “use of form agreements” was permissible, the definition of plagiarism in the MAPP was unclear, and that Ahn had copied her work. She also presented character evidence.
Easley rejected Yu’s appeal last October, and increased the sanctions against Yu by suspending her for the remainder of the academic year and by the insertion of a formal letter of censure in Yu’s file.
In his three-page letter to Yu, Easley said he found a “reasonable person could find from the evidence presented that the prohibition against use of form agreements in the student’s final work product was clear, that the definition of plagiarism was clear, and that Ms. Yu copied significant portions of her final work product from form agreements and from the work of another student….”
He said he felt the increased punishment was merited since Yu had demonstrated no remorse or “any comprehension of the seriousness of the charges brought against her” and her “use of unauthorized materials in her assignment [was] not unlike a student using unauthorized materials in a final exam.”
As a student caught the previous academic year hiding a course outline in a restroom so that he could access it surreptitiously during the final exam was sanctioned with expulsion, Easley insisted a “sanction more serious than a failing grade in the course is clearly justified” for Yu.
Yu thereafter filed a complaint, asserting the school had violated Education Code Sec. 94367 in imposing the increased discipline against her.
Sec. 94367 prohibits private universities from disciplining students solely on the basis of speech which would be protected from governmental restriction by the federal and state constitutions if made off campus.
Yu contended her appeal to the dean was protected speech and petitioning activity under this statute, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien found she was unlikely to prevail on the merits of this claim and declined her request for a preliminary injunction.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Patti S. Kitching said this was not an abuse of discretion.
She explained that Sec. 94367 creates statutory free speech rights for students of private postsecondary educational institutions, but no right to petition.
The justice emphasized the purpose of the statute “is to prohibit private universities from punishing students solely for engaging in speech,” and this goal “would not be promoted by interpreting the statute to exclude speech directed at a school official regarding a school-related issue” as urged by the university.
“A letter to the Dean, including a letter which constitutes an appeal from a Judicial Board decision, is the kind of speech covered by section 94367,” Kitching said, although substantial evidence supported the trial court’s implied finding that the school did not increase its punishment of Yu for her “speech.”
Kitching noted that Easley “stated a number of reasons for increasing Yu’s sanctions that have nothing to do with Yu’s exercise of her free speech rights,” such as her extensive use of the online contract and Ahn’s work, and her decision to continued disputation of the charges against her.
“For all of these reasons, we conclude there is substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s implied finding that the University did not increase Yu’s punishment solely on the basis of her exercise of free speech rights,” Kitching said.
Presiding Justice Joan D. Klein and Justice Richard D. Aldrich joined Kitching in her opinion. .
Yu was represented by Los Angeles practitioner Stephanie A. Sperber. Stuart W. Rudnick and Geoffrey C. Brown of Musick, Peeler & Garrett represented the school.
The case is Yu v. University of LaVerne, 11 S.O.S. 3228.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company