Basic Legal Guidelines for Setting Classroom Policies

"It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail 'the four essential freedoms' of a university--to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study."

--Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 263 (1957)

I. Legal Standard of Review

In general, the legal standard of review for governmental decisions (such as classroom policies set by faculty members at a public institution) is the rational basis test. In other words, the decisions faculty members make on how to conduct their classes are likely to be upheld in a court of law if they are reasonable, meaning that they are not arbitrary and capricious, based on malice, or based on illegal discrimination (e.g., based on an individual’s race, religion, gender, disability, or national origin).  A faculty member should always be prepared to articulate a rational justification for any classroom policy he or she imposes.  For example, a faculty member may proscribe certain conduct in the classroom because it would be disruptive to the teaching or educational process.

II. Grades

For the most part, courts leave grading policies to the discretion of the faculty member, within the academic standards established by the institution. Grade challenges by students are not likely to be successful in court unless there is an underlying violation of the student's right, such as illegal discrimination. One court has found that a faculty member's award of a grade was an exercise of his First Amendment right to free speech, and the institution therefore violated his free speech when it attempted to force him to change the grade. The court also held, however, that the university could have changed the student's grade itself.

Generally, a grading policy will be enforceable if it is based on the students' performance and other standards relevant to the educational process. A grade based in part upon an unrelated factor, such as what the faculty member thinks of the student as a person, is less likely to be enforceable. Clearly unenforceable policies are those that are arbitrary, discriminatory, or malicious.

For more information, see University Policy 410, Policy and Procedure for Student Appeals of Final Course Grades.

III. Special Considerations

1. Illegal Discrimination in General

In accordance with University Policy 501, Nondiscrimination, faculty members should make sure that their classroom policies do not have the effect (intentional or unintentional) of illegally discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and parenting), sexual orientation, gender identity, age, national origin, physical or mental disability, veteran status, or genetic information. Differential treatment based on one of these "protected" classes will result in the application of "strict scrutiny" by a court and require a "compelling governmental interest" to justify the practice.  An otherwise discriminatory practice must be justified by a very important reason.

Policies likely to involve illegal discrimination against a protected class:

  • attendance/absence/tardiness
  • participation 
  • papers, projects, and tests/exams
  • appropriate dress 
2. Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that the University provide reasonable accommodations to those students who identify themselves as disabled and request such accommodation. Because students are not required to disclose a disability, faculty members should not ask a student about whether they are disabled or treat a student differently based on a perceived disability. However, if a student self-identifies as having a disability and requests a reasonable accommodation from a faculty member, the faculty member should refer the student to the Office of Disability Services, which will register the student and provide necessary assistance or information on accommodations specific to their disability. (See University Policy 501.5, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability). Classroom policies should be flexible enough to accommodate students with disabilities.

Policies likely to involve ADA protections:

  • attendance/absences/tardiness
  • participation
  • papers, projects, tests/exams
3. Religious Accommodation

University officials will make a good faith effort to accommodate a student’s religious practice or belief, unless it would create an undue hardship.  University Policy 409, Religious Accommodation for Students, requires that the University accommodate a student’s religious practice or belief, unless such accommodation would create undue hardship.  In addition, under North Carolina law (NC General Statute 116-11(3a), UNC Charlotte is required to (1) authorize a minimum of two excused absences each academic year for religious observances required by the faith of a student; and (2) provide students the opportunity to make up any tests or other work missed due to an excused absence for a religious observance. 

Accordingly, a faculty member’s classroom policies should be flexible enough to accommodate student absences for religious observances.

Policies likely to involve religious accommodations:

  • attendance/absences/tardiness
  • participation (e.g., requirement to engage in conduct proscribed by a religious belief)
  • tests/exam schedules
  • appropriate dress
4. Pregnancy

Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in a university's education programs and activities. Sex-based discrimination includes:

  • Applying any rule concerning a student's actual or potential parental, family, or marital status which treats students differently on the basis of sex.
  • Discriminating against any student, or excluding any student from an education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, on the basis of such student's pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, or recovery therefrom (unless the student requests voluntarily to participate in a separate portion of the program or activity). 
  • Requiring a doctor's note to certify that a pregnant student is physically and emotionally able to continue participation unless such a certification is required of all students for other physical or emotional conditions requiring the attention of a physician. 

Under Title IX, a university is required to:

  • Operate any separate education program or activity for pregnant students on a completely voluntary basis and ensure that such separate program or activity is comparable.
  • Treat pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, and recovery therefrom in the same manner and under the same policies as any other temporary disability with respect to any university medical or hospital benefit, service, plan, or policy. 
  • Treat pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, and recovery therefrom as a justification for a leave of absence for so long a period of time as is deemed medically necessary by the student's physician, at the conclusion of which the student shall be reinstated to the status which they held when the leave began.

For more information, see guidance on Pregnant or Parenting Students from the Office of Civil Rights & Title IX.

Policies likely to involve pregnancy and parenting accommodations include:

  • attendance/absences/tardiness
  • participation
  • papers, projects, tests/exams


Updated July 2023