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Syracuse sued for punishing fraternity members for their speech, denying them due process

By excluding ‘satirical’ context, university defamed and endangered them

I’ve been wondering for a week when someone else would ask Syracuse what authority it has to punish fraternity members for performing sexually crude, racially tinged skits in their own house and sharing the videos privately in a Facebook group.

It has refused to explain what specific provisions of its own policies it’s applying to the Theta Tau chapter, and the district attorney swatted down its repeated claim that the engineering fraternity engaged in criminal behavior.

Now the private university will have to answer those questions before a federal judge.

Four prospective brothers and one current Theta Tau member sued Syracuse and several officials Tuesday, claiming it violated its own policies by punishing them for their “satirical” speech in the leaked videos and denying them due process, including illicitly changing their “academic status.”

They are seeking more than $1 million each in damages for just a single count – defamation – claiming they have “suffered economic damages, past and future mental anguish and distress,
irreparable damage to their reputation, and humiliation.”

Echoing the national Theta Tau’s explanation of the night in question, the plaintiffs said the university took the skits out of their “roast” context and prejudged the plaintiffs as “racist, anti-sematic [sic], homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities instead of contextualizing the recording as satirical.” (The filing misspells “anti-Semitic” in most references.)

As I noticed when watching the videos, the fraternity appeared to have multiple nonwhite members.

The plaintiffs include black, Indian-American and Latino students – one of whom is a foreign national – and 44 percent of the chapter members are “diverse,” the suit claims. The chapter is twice as diverse as the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Theta Tau also has an unusually large percentage of female members nationally, about 1 in 3.

According to Syracuse.com, an affidavit claims that a Jewish member was the one who took the “oath” to hate “kikes,” which showed the “comic irony” of the roast. Affidavits also claim a Theta Tau brother was “assaulted” at a downtown bar after the videos were leaked, “members have been fired from jobs,” and one might lose his job as a research assistant.

‘Intentionally vague, conclusory statements’ and ‘patently irrelevant’ charges

The lawsuit names as individual defendants Chancellor Kent Syverud; Pamela Peter, director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities; Dean of Students Robert Hradsky; and Teresa Abi-Nader Dahlberg, dean of the engineering school.

It claims they violated three sections of the Student Handbook that promise students “the right to express themselves freely” as long as it doesn’t violate the student code; “fundamental fairness before formal disciplinary sanctions are imposed,” including “written notice” and a hearing “before any change in status is incurred”; and “the right to expect a reasonably safe environment” at Syracuse.

The plaintiffs were also deprived their rights under the “Bill of Rights” in the Student Conduct System Handbook, namely a “fair, impartial” process, at least “one level of appeal,” and the right to bring “an advisor of choice … during all meetings related to such process.”

The lawsuit recounts just how quickly the university acted against the fraternity and publicly condemned their behavior. It “continually” defamed them – portraying them as “criminals” even when the DA contradicted them – and officials “selectively commented on snippets to make the Roast appear as though the excerpts were seriously held views of the participants.”

Syverud ignored the roast context in multiple public statements, while Hradsky ignored the fact that the depicted sex acts were “not compelled,” the suit says. The Department of Public Safety filed “charging letters” against the plaintiffs, composed of “intentionally vague, conclusory statements,” that accused them of rule violations that were “patently irrelevant to the skits.”

These specific code provisions were “threat of physical harm” including sexual abuse; “harassment” that goes “beyond the bounds of protected free speech”; conduct that “threatens the mental health” of anyone, including “forms of destructive behavior”; legal and university violations related to alcohol and drugs; and violating “official University publications,” Greek life policies and the university anti-harassment policy.

The suit say the Department of Public Safety has refused to even claim there was “a threat to the public safety or welfare of any individuals” when it removed the plaintiffs and 13 others from attending “classes, labs, or academic functions.”

The university has placed them under “an unauthorized quasi-suspension … to skirt its well-established rules and effectively expel the Plaintiffs without proper process.”

MORE: Syracuse threatens ‘legal’ action for ‘satirical sketch’

Does v. Syracuse University – Theta Tau lawsuit by Julie McMahon on Scribd

Syracuse hid exonerating evidence?

All of these “arbitrary and capricious” actions by Syracuse and its officials violate multiple contractual promises to the plaintiffs. The suit claims officials did not “impartially investigate” allegations, “reasonably protect [the plaintiffs’] identities or curb a threatening environment fostered by” their public statements.

It violated their contractual rights to “adequate notice of the charges against them” by citing inapplicable code provisions, “meaningful opportunity to be heard” by repeatedly defaming them, and choice of adviser. It declared them “suspended” in violation of school policy, which only allows “interim” suspension during an investigation, and in the process violated their right to appeal:

In communications following the charging letter, the University has affirmatively denied that Plaintiffs are suspended on an interim basis as defined by the System. Instead, the University has created a specific, arbitrary, and capricious punishment established by administrative fiat for the purposes of bowing to public pressure all-the-while [sic] denying Plaintiffs their contractual rights to avail themselves to the judicial proceedings set forth in the System.

“Despite promising otherwise,” Syracuse has yet to academically “accommodate” the plaintiffs in these final two weeks of classes, which has “delayed and irnpeded their ability to obtain
their respective degrees.”

The suit seizes on a public statement by a non-defendant, Senior Vice President of Enrollment Dolan Evanovich, that Syracuse is “really trying to compress this [adjudication] timeline”:

The University’s race to punish Plaintiffs for their involvement in the Roast has denied Plaintiffs the right to avail themselves of any adjudicative process as outlined in the System; specifically, the University’s conduct does not permit the Plaintiffs to appeal the University’s apparent decision that Plaintiffs’ presence on campus is a threat to the community, nor does it permit the student to appeal any decision regarding their suspension.

It says any “fair, objective, and reasonable viewing of the skit” would show that it doesn’t include “fighting words” as the charging letters imply, and it reminded Syracuse that even “hate speech” is constitutionally protected.

The university defamed the plaintiffs by ignoring their own description of the skit, according to the suit, which hints that exonerating evidence has been intentionally withheld from the public:

University officials continued to make such statements despite members of the Chapter publically and unequivocally stating that the Roast was a satirical depiction of “an uneducated, racist, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, ableist and intolerant person.”

This statement demonstrably shows Plaintiffs were not, in fact, depicting their own views. This statement, along with the other videos not released by the University, demonstrates Plaintiffs [sic] goals were to make fun of racists, sexists, and bigots, as opposed to the Universities [sic] statements, which indicate Plaintiffs, condone such views.

Finally, the lawsuit claims that Syracuse violated their 14th Amendment rights because it applied a code provision to their behavior that is arguably required by state law, creating an unwritten punishment of “quasi-suspension.”

It seeks a permanent injunction to restore the plaintiffs to “good academic standing” and stay the disciplinary proceedings against them. The plaintiffs will seek compensatory and punitive damages at trial.

MORE: Syracuse charges 18 with satire ‘beyond the bounds of free speech’

IMAGE: Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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