Monday, March 10, 2008

Sigma Chi Loses George Mason Appeal

Area fraternity loses suit filed after being kicked off campus
by Ashley Roberts
Hatchet Staff Writer

A judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a George Mason University fraternity late last month that argued the fraternity was unconstitutionally kicked off campus.

In 2005, GMU asked its chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity to leave campus amidst allegations of hazing, sexual assault and underage drinking. The fraternity later sued the school for violating the members' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and due process in terms of student judicial proceedings.

Plaintiffs Ryan Duckwitz and Justin Pietro, the chapter's president of vice president respectively, state in court records that they were unfairly targeted by administrators for events they held off campus, as well as other more benign acts which took place on campus.

The complaint alleged in once instance that university officials asked Pietro to leave the student union after he entered wearing his fraternity letters. GMU, a public university located in Alexandria, Va., responded in court filings that it was holding a Greek-letter life recruitment fair at the time and Pietro was asked to leave because his organization is not permitted to recruit on campus.

Another example cited in the complaint involves a group of fraternity members that were charged with hazing violations after they were seen singing in front of the library.

"The chapter alleges that the singing and dancing was protected speech and that they were punished for it," wrote Pietro and Duckwitz's lawyer, Tamara Tucker, in an e-mail.

Dan Walsch, a GMU spokesperson, said the university takes free speech on the public campus very seriously.

"George Mason, historically, takes freedom of expression very seriously. Our university, any university, in the country has no chance of attaining any quality if it's going to stifle freedom of speech."

The university's public response to the suit is that it asked the fraternity to leave campus because of major violations and that the fraternity's civil complaint is unfounded.

"The things that matter are the sexual assault, underage drinking and hazing - these are very serious things," Walsch said. "These are things that can theoretically put people in prison."

The university submitted video evidence downloaded from the Internet that showed fraternity members drinking and vomiting. In response, the plaintiffs entered evidence that GMU president Alan Merten had allegedly participated in "beer pong" with another campus fraternity.

Though the case against the school has been dismissed, the case against Merten and other administrators, like former dean of students Girard Mulherin, is still pending.

Mulherin allegedly misinformed the student judicial committee in order to have the fraternity kicked off campus, according to court documents.

"The student panel did not have any understanding of the 'clear and convincing evidence' standard which was necessary for a finding of responsibility against the chapter," said Tucker.

Sigma Chi also exists at GW, but as an on-campus fraternity.