GAINESVILLE, Ga. (CN) - A Georgia college prohibited its student newspaper from writing about lurid sorority hazing, and fired two professors who objected to the censorship, the professors and a student claim in court.
Jo Hannah Burch, a student, and former professors Joseph Terry and Theresa Crapanzano sued Young Harris College in Federal Court.
Young Harris College, of Young Harris, Ga., is a Methodist-affiliated college of more than 1,000 students, "nestled in the southern Appalachian Mountains of northeastern Georgia," according to its website.
Burch enrolled as a full-time student at the private university in August 2011 and in February 2012 she "was accepted as a pledge by Gamma Psi sorority. Gamma Psi is unique to YHC, and has no national affiliations with any other Greek organization," the complaint states.
It continues: "Upon being accepted as a pledge by Gamma Psi, the sorority began subjecting Burch to what it called an 'education period.' During this 'education period,' Burch was subjected to severe and pervasive harassment and abuse by senior members and alumni of the sorority. Burch heard many senior sorority members refer to this 'education period' as 'hazing.'"
During hazing, Burch and other pledges were taken into the woods and blindfolded, and "the sorority members blared loud heavy metal music, and forced the pledges to scream their names, in response to profanity-laden questions such as 'what's my fucking name?' The pledges were required to scream until they were hoarse," the complaint states.
"Eventually, the blindfolds were removed, and various sorority members began to scream and spit in the faces of the pledges. They further smeared mud in the pledges' faces, and required them to crawl through the mud into a cold creek. Throughout this abuse, sorority members continuously shouted at the pledges, calling them sex-specific insults, such as 'bitch,'" Burch says in the complaint.
After nearly a week of hazing, Burch decided she did not want to join the sorority after all.
She says she "met with plaintiff Theresa Crapanzano, who was then Burch's advisor on the school newspaper. Burch proceeded to disclose the severe and pervasive course of abuse she suffered at the hands of members of Gamma Psi."
After a supposedly confidential meeting with Susan Rogers, the college's vice president of student affairs, Burch says she "received a text message from a member of Gamma Psi informing her that someone had disclosed her complaints of hazing to members of the sorority."
"On information and belief, YHC staff member Susan Rogers disclosed the complaints to Gamma Psi, despite Burch's request for confidentiality," the complaint states.
It continues: "Burch immediately scheduled a meeting with Rogers on Monday, April 2, 2012. Terry and Joy Goldsmith attended this meeting as well. During this meeting, Rogers informed Burch that Gamma Psi would be suspended for one year, but that no individual involved in the hazing would be punished.
"Further, Rogers discouraged Burch from filing a police report. Threatening that, if she did, the sorority members involved would sue her."
Crapanzano says that in researching the hazing for an article in the school newspaper, "she found that extreme forms of hazing were widespread at YHC, and frequently involved sexually abusive conduct."
She claims the hazing rituals included:
"Forcing female pledges to take part in a 'panty run,' in which they are required to run across campus in their underwear as other students, including male students, look on;
"Forcing 'sweethearts' (female members of male fraternities) to stand naked and be judged by the fraternity members;
"Forcing 'sweethearts' to hump the ground and moan as if having sex, as the fraternity members look on;
"Forcing both female and male pledges to stand in a pool of water in which the older pledges have urinated or defecated in;
"Forcing male pledges to engage in 'elephant crawls' through a creek, during which the pledges crawl one behind another, with each pledge's face planted between the buttocks of the pledge in front of him;
"Forcing female pledges to sit unclothed on running washing machines while members of the sorority use a permanent marker to mark areas of their bodies that jiggle;
"Interrogating students who are believed to have 'ratted' on fellow Greeks and making derogatory and sexually explicit personal insults. In one particular instance during the spring semester, a female student was screamed at to the point of tears in front of an entire sorority and called sex-specific insults such as 'cunt' and 'whore.'"
Crapanzano and Terry say they held faculty meetings to discuss the school's lack of a discipline policy on hazing, but "when specifically questioned about potential disciplinary action against the member of YHC staff who was involved in hazing Burch, [YHC President Cathy] Cox responded that the investigation had been 'unable to substantiate' the allegation. She went on to explain that, despite the existence of eyewitness testimony, eyewitness testimony was 'inherently unreliable.'
"At this meeting, Ms. Crapanzano directly challenged Cox's comments regarding the evidence of a YHC staff member's involvement. In response, Cox threatened Ms. Crapanzano, suggesting that she and Crapanzano should 'step outside and fight,'" according to the complaint.
Crapanzano claims she completed her article on hazing at YHC the next week, but "the Chair of the Communication Studies Department, Dr. Jennifer Hallett, in an email, informed Ms. Crapanzano, Mr. Terry and the Communication Studies faculty that the article would have to be sent to YHC's attorney to be 'screened' before publication.
"On information and belief, the intention behind this request was to censor the article and hide the details regarding the widespread and deeply institutional nature of hazing practices among YHC student organizations."
President Cox eventually refused to publish the article, and a week later, Crapanzano was fired, and "barred from attending graduation activities, denied access to her school email, and escorted to her office to retrieve her personal belongings by campus police nearly three months before the natural end of her one-year contract with no explanation," the complaint states.
Terry says he was fired shortly thereafter, in a letter "warning him that he had no contractual rights as a non-tenured employee."
All three plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages for violations of Title IX, retaliation and negligence.
They are represented by James Radford of Decatur, Ga.
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