Goss v. Lopez

Are students entitled to due process if they are suspended from public schools for 1 to 10 days? If so, what process is due? These were the questions that confronted the U.S. Supreme Court in Goss v. Lopez (1975), its most significant case involving the due process rights of students who are subject to exclusion from school for disciplinary infractions.

Goss arose when Dwight Lopez and other students from the Columbus, Ohio, public schools were suspended for up to 10 days due to a disturbance in the lunchroom. Lopez testified that he did not participate in the destructive conduct, but was just a bystander. He claimed that his suspension without a hearing violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. On further review of a judgment from a federal trial court, the Supreme Court agreed.

The Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from depriving persons of “life, liberty or property without due process,” applied to Lopez’s case. Specifically, the Court held that the suspension of students could affect both their property and liberty interests. First, the Court explained that a student’s right to an education is a property or economic interest that cannot be taken away without fair procedures. Second, the Court maintained that when school officials suspend students, they also affect student’s liberty or reputation interests. For example, suspensions for misconduct on students’ records could harm their opportunities for employment or college admissions.

Having determined that the Due Process Clause applies to student suspensions, the next question was, what process was due? The answer, wrote the Court, is “some kind of notice and . . . some kind of hearing.” The specific process required before a suspension of 19 days or less is that the student be given “(1) oral or written notice of the charges against him, and (2) if he denies them, (A) an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and (b) an opportunity to present his side of the story.” The purpose of these procedures, according to the Court, is to provide “rudimentary precautions against unfair or mistaken findings of misconduct.”

The Court does not require any delay between the informal notice and the hearing, which usually would consist of a discussion of the alleged misconduct with the student, who would have an opportunity to present his or her version of the facts before the disciplinarian ruled on the case. While a hearing would usually be required before suspension, the Court would allow students to be removed immediately when they posed “a continuing danger to persons or property” or an ongoing threat of disruption. In such cases, the notice and hearing would follow as soon as was feasible.

On behalf of the Court, Justice Byron White emphasized the limited procedures that were required before a short-term suspension. In these cases, the Court does not require that students have a right to a lawyer, to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them, or to call witnesses on their behalf. On the other hand, after listening to the students’ versions of events, conscientious disciplinarians may decide that they should call the accusers and witnesses to make more informed decisions.

In conclusion, Justice White indicated that the informal notice and hearing required by the Court in this case is “less than a fair-minded principal would impose upon himself in order to avoid unfair suspensions.”

David Schimmel

See also Due Process

Legal Citations

  • Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, 294 F.2d 150 (5th Cir. 1961). 
  • Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975). 
  • Hardy v. University Interscholastic League, 759 F.2d 1233 (5th Cir. 1985). 
  • Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977).