Cox Accused of Defamation in Hazing Story

     ATLANTA (CN) – The roommate of the Florida marching band member who died from hazing in November claims in court that Cox Media defamed him by calling him one of the perpetrators of the hazing, though he was a victim of it.
     Keon Hollis sued Cox Media Group dba WFTV and WFTV Inc., in Fulton County State Court.
     Hollis, a senior at Florida A&M University, claims that WFTV published an article on its website that falsely reported that the school had suspended him after the death of Robert Champion.
     “The article falsely states that plaintiff was suspended by Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (‘FAMU’) in connection with the hazing-related homicide of Mr. Robert Champion (‘Mr. Champion’),” the complaint states. “It was clear from the outset that plaintiff Hollis was never suspended, and was a victim, rather than a perpetrator, of hazing on the night of Mr. Champion’s death. Indeed, defendants’ source for the article expressly disavowed all statements associating plaintiff with the homicide and alleged suspension before defendants published the article. Defendants nevertheless published the article, leading readers and members of the public to believe that Hollis hazed Mr. Champion and ultimately caused, or contributed to the cause of, his tragic and untimely death. Defendants negligently published the article and published it with a reckless disregard for truth or falsity.”
     Hollis, who was Champion’s roommate, is also a drum major and a member of the school’s now-notorious marching band, “the Marching 100”.
     According to the complaint, “the Marching 100,” which was established in 1892, has performed at high-profile events such as the Super Bowl, presidential inaugurations and the Grammy Awards, and has been featured on TV shows and in national commercials.
     “Known for precise and disciplined routines, members of the Marching 100 have been, and are, a tightly knit group, not unlike fraternities and sororities in the collegiate Greek system,” the complaint states.
     “Within the Marching 100, members formed separate, and often secret, subgroups, which also resembled fraternities and sororities.
     “These subgroups, known as the Clones, Thunder, Gestapo, Red Dawgs, Screaming Demons, B Tone Express, Whales, and The Z, have been historically based on a variety of common bonds among various band members, such as the section of instruments played by particular groups or the area of the country from which students came prior to attending FAMU and becoming members of the Marching 100.
     “The culture of camaraderie and discipline also involved a deeply rooted and entrenched tradition of hazing which pervaded the Marching 100 as a whole, as well as each of the subgroups.
     “Over the years, various hazing rituals were used by Marching 100 members in an attempt to galvanize and indoctrinate members into the Marching 100, as well as into the secret and select subgroups of the Marching 100.
     “Hazing is part of a longstanding tradition within the Marching 100, and, on information and belief, has been carried out with the knowledge of FAMU faculty members and, in some cases, has occurred in their presence.
     “Less senior students often submitted to hazing as a means to attain the respect and trust of their fellow Marching 100 members and/or to gain admission into the various subgroups of the Marching 100.
     “Students who refused to be hazed were ostracized and faced isolation and disrespect.
     “One of the most brutal hazing traditions at FAMU is an event known as ‘Crossing Bus C’ or ‘Crossing Over’.
     “Crossing Over takes place on the bus used to transport the percussion section of the band, known as Bus C.
     “Crossing Bus C requires the Marching 100 member to be hazed by attempting to make his or her way from the front of Bus C to the back of the bus, while the Marching 100 member is repeatedly beaten, pushed, kicked, pulled, thrown to the ground, and even thrown against the ceiling by other Marching 100 members. Marching 100 members use their hands as well as hard objects, such as drumsticks, mallets, paddles and bottles, to hit the hazed member as he or she attempts to make his or her way to the back of the bus.
     “Agreeing to Cross Over is viewed by Marching 100 members as a tradition for obtaining the utmost respect and acceptance of the Marching 100.
     “Hazing is a criminal offense in the State of Florida and the State of Georgia.”
     Hollis says he was one of six drum majors chosen to lead the band during the 2011 FAMU football season, along with Champion.
     On Nov. 19, after FAMU played its last football game of the season, in Orlando, Hollis and Champion went through the “crossing over” ritual to gain the respect of band members, according to the complaint.
     “After both men boarded bus C, plaintiff Hollis began crossing over,” the complaint states. “In the process, plaintiff Hollis was repeatedly beaten with band members’ hands, drumsticks, mallets and other objects, kicked, pushed and stomped as he made his way to the back of the bus. As he began his efforts to reach the back of the bus, he heard Mr. Champion being beaten in a traditional prerequisite to crossing over, known as the hot seat.
     “After completing the hot seat, Mr. Champion began crossing over. Mr. Champion also attempted to make his way to the back of the bus while being beaten with fists and physical objects and being kicked, pushed, pulled and stomped.
     “After crossing over, plaintiff Hollis briefly spoke with Mr. Champion, while both men sat beaten at the back of bus C.
     “Plaintiff Hollis then exited the bus, and vomited in the parking lot as a result of the beating he had endured.
     “Shortly thereafter, Mr. Champion lost consciousness while still on board of bus C and was later pronounced dead from hemorrhagic shock. The injuries that caused Mr. Champion’s death were a direct result of the blunt force trauma he received from the repeated beatings he experienced while being subjected to the hot seat and crossing over hazing rituals. Plaintiff Hollis survived the trauma. Mr. Champion, his friend and roommate, died that night as a result of it.”
     Hollis says he was a victim of the hazing ritual and was never expelled or considered responsible for Champion’s death.
     But he claims that on Dec. 5, 2011, WFTV and Cox Media published a defamatory article, “FAMU student leaders call for an end to hazing,” on the WFTV web page, falsely stating that Hollis had been suspended in connection with Champion’s death.
     Hollis says the article attributed its statements about him to FAMU’s student newspaper, The Famuan, which mistakenly identified Hollis as one of four students who had been expelled after Champion’s death.
     He claims The Famuan removed his name from the original article before WFTV and Cox Media published their piece, but the defendants failed to remove the false and defamatory statements.
     After Hollis demanded a retraction, WFTV and Cox Media updated the article, stating that Hollis had not been suspended, but he says they failed to mention that Hollis had not contributed to Champion’s death.
     Hollis says the article permanently damaged his reputation.
     He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for defamation and emotional distress, and wants a complete retraction of the article.
     Hollis is represented by L. Lin Wood with Wood, Hernacki & Evans.

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