After months of scrutiny over why University of Texas Professor Richard A. Morrisett – who pleaded guilty to a felony account of assaulting his girlfriend – was allowed to stay on the job, employees at the university will now face a tougher policy that requires them to self-report any arrest, as well as the ultimate disposition of the case. The announcement went out last week in a letter to employees from UT-Austin President Greg Fenves.
The new rule also means employees caught driving under the influence – or arrested for drug use – would have to self-report, even if the charges were baseless.
Richard Carlson, professor of law at South Texas Law School in Houston, says the new policy could raise questions about violating employees’ constitutional rights.
“Even with the constitutional rights, employers have a lot of power to ask questions and to regulate your conduct within certain limits,” Carlson says.
He says the school faces significant challenges with implementing the new policy.
“There will be cases in which people will fail to self-report,” he says. “You can imagine if you’ve just been arrested and you spent the night in jail, self-reporting to your employer might be the last thing on your mind. You have lots of other things to worry about. So there are going to be both purposeful and inadvertent failures to comply with this rule.”
Once the arrest is reported, Carlson says, having that information is a huge responsibility for the school. The information has to be managed carefully to protect privacy, but there are others concerns, too – can the policy treat all employees fairly?
“There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that there are disparate rates of arrest between whites and blacks,” he says. “The disparity is most pronounced in certain types of arrests – disorderly conduct, which is a charge that the police might bring against you when they haven’t really got anything else to charge you with. If you a conflict with a police officer, that would be the sort of charge that the police officer is most likely to cite you with.”
Despite the hurdles, Carlson says it’s not a bad idea.
“I think it’s an appropriate response if you do it very, very carefully. What worries me a little bit is that other employers will try to model this, that they will see this as the green light to adopt a policy like this on their own, not appreciating just how complicated it is,” he says. “There are a lot of ways that this can blow up in your face.”
Written by Jen Rice.