(CN) – In an explosive week for Syracuse University, five suspended students brought a federal complaint Tuesday that says the school defamed them and violated their civil rights over leaked footage of their boorish fraternity roast.
Represented by the Syracuse firm Smith Sovik, the students filed their suit anonymously in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.
Just a day earlier the students learned that they were being suspended over videos that had been shared with school officials and with Syracuse University’s campus newspaper, The Daily Orange, of their March 30, 2018, roast at the Theta Tau frat house.
Tuesday’s complaint links to two of the videos on The Daily Orange’s Youtube page. In a series of skits permeated with laughter, heckling and some boos, the videos capture several students alternately mimicking a handicap, bestiality, fellatio, sexual assault and a Southern accent. “Too far,” students in the audience can be heard complaining after one skit laden with obscenities and racial slurs.
Tuesday’s complaint says school administrators brushed over the satirical context of the video in their rush to “salvage Syracuse University’s reputation at plaintiffs’ expense.”
“Within minutes of the roast recordings leaking, defendants had effectively concluded the investigation;” the complaint states. “Defendants had: (1) expelled the fraternity for nothing more than being identifiable in the recording; (2) identified Theta Tau as the organization in the video to the community, outing plaintiffs and their organization and subjecting Plaintiffs to ridicule and scorn; and (3) proclaimed the participants as racist, anti-sematic (sic), homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities instead of contextualizing the recording as satirical. All that defendants have done is overreact, speed to judgment, and portray the students as ‘criminals.’”
Theta Tau is one of the country’s oldest and largest co-educational fraternities devoted to engineers. The complaint notes that the roast of Theta Tau brothers “is a time-honored chapter tradition that builds unity by satirically and hyperbolically depicting brothers.”
Calling out the unauthorized dissemination of the roast recordings, the students also note that the skits were performed privately but recordings were made out of respect for any chapter members who could not attend the event itself.
Syracuse University spokeswoman Sarah Scalese defended the school’s treatment of the students, but otherwise declined to comment on pending litigation.
“The university stands by the actions it took to protect the well-being of the campus community and maintain a respectful and safe learning environment,” Scalese said.
Though the complaint shields their identities, the plaintiffs in the complaint are described as ethnically diverse. Four of the five are freshman pledges to Theta Tau — one is black, one Central American and the third Indian American. John Doe #5 is described only as a chapter member.
While these five were suspended, the complaint notes that 18 students received letters from Syracuse University on April 21 informing them that they had committed public-safety violations. Syracuse also permanently expelled the fraternity that same day.
In contrast to this rhetoric, however, the complaint quotes a local prosecutor as saying that there was “nothing” criminal about the videos.
“In point of fact, District Attorney William Fitzpatrick repeatedly denied that the conduct constituted crimes,” the complaint states. “Reviewing the videos in context, he drew the reasonable conclusion that the University continues to ignore: while the video may depict ‘rank stupidity, … luckily stupidity is not a crime’.”
The students say Syracuse University went on damage control as the roast recordings made headlines across the country. “The roast recordings … have been repeatedly decontextualized, intentionally distorted, and maligned to Plaintiffs detriment in favor of the university’s public relations response campaign,” the complaint states. “Instead of portraying the roast in its satirical intent, University officials have selectively commented on snippets to make the roast appear as though the excerpts were seriously held views of the participants.”
In addition to an injunction, the five students seek punitive damages, alleging breach of contract, defamation, bad faith, and violations of the First and 14th Amendments.