Lawyer questions legality of UCF halting Greek activity

Published On: Feb 21 2013 11:34:23 PM EST
Updated On: Feb 22 2013 06:41:10 AM EST
ORLANDO, Fla. -

A lawyer specializing in fraternal law is questioning the legality of the University of Central Florida's unprecedented halt to most activities of all Greek organizations, even though only two are currently under investigation for hazing and alcohol misconduct.

"This is the second instance this academic year that I am aware of where a state university shut down all (or most) activities by men's and women's fraternities and sororities because of the bad action of some," Timothy M. Burke, a founding partner of Fraternal Law Partners, told Local 6.

The first incident happened at the University of California Chico.

"In both cases, I believe the actions of the schools to be unfair and unconstitutional," Burke said, adding that national Greek organizations take hazing seriously, and when a bad actor is identified, the wrongdoer is punished, according to internal procedures.

UCF, and the Florida Board of Governors which oversees it, have both enacted regulations dealing with misconduct and hazing. They call for a right to a panel hearing, but do first allow for an emergency suspension before a hearing when the health or safety of a student is at issue.

When that happens, a review of the emergency suspension is required within 10 days. But UCF indicated this punishment will likely last until the end of the semester, and no standard review hearings are planned.

UCF's actions concerns Burke, especially because the vast majority of the Greek organizations impacted are not even suspected of wrongdoing.

"For a state university to impose discipline, to deny the freedom of association rights to all Greek groups, without following either the University's own disciplinary procedures or any due process is a violation of the constitutional and civil rights of the groups involved," Burke said. "That is particularly true of the groups which have not engaged in wrongdoing and conform to both university rules, civil law and the standards and policies of their national organizations."

UCF did not initially provide many details behind its decision making process on Wednesday. On Thursday, Local 6 obtained a copy of UCF Vice President Dr. Maribeth Ehasz's calendar, which shows she had several meetings on the subject this week.

On Monday afternoon, Ehasz's calendar shows she held a "Greek Community Followup Meeting" with Assistant Vice President Belinda Boston. A Greek strategy meeting was held then Tuesday afternoon, followed by a Wednesday morning meeting, before announcing the decision to Greek leaders at a final meeting Wednesday afternoon.

It's not clear who was involved in all of the meetings or what other options may have been considered in the decision-making process. While UCF hasn't elaborated, it released a brief statement saying it believes its action was legal.

"UCF consulted with its General Counsel's Office and determined that the action taken today was within the university's scope of authority," the statement reads.

The Board of Governors released a statement Wednesday night, saying, "with the limited amount of information that we have today, it is impossible for us to weigh in on this issue."

A spokesperson said the Board of Governors hadn't had a chance to explore the issue in enough detail Thursday to issue a new statement regarding UCF's actions, noting the Board of Governors had a packed schedule conducting a meeting.

Burke warned UCF could end up having to pay big bucks, if someone challenges its decision and a judge determines UCF acted unlawfully.

"I don't know all of the details of what prompted this action at UCF or what UCF is doing, but the university's actions may well be subject to challenge under the federal Civil Rights law 42 USC 1983 and if such a challenge was won by a Greek group or one of its members, the University would be obligated to pay the plaintiffs attorney fees and costs," Burke said.

Absent any outside intervention, chapter activities will resume when UCF officials are satisfied that "Greek culture reflects the values of the UCF Creed and, more importantly, that we can ensure compliance with laws and university regulations governing hazing and alcohol."

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