UCF facing 3 lawsuits over 'kangaroo court'

The University of Central Florida office in charge of punishing student misconduct is facing its own accusations of wrongdoing.

[Web Extra: $900k settlement in Georgia conduct case

Three students are suing the university, alleging members of UCF's Student Conduct Board unfairly – and wrongly – found they committed serious offenses like stalking and rape.

Orlando criminal defense attorney Lyle Mazin was not surprised.

"It's a kangaroo court," said Mazin. "They're the ones essentially prosecuting, yet judging, the case. It's a very, very peculiar situation."

Mazin doesn't represent any of the three men presently suing UCF, but he has represented a student UCF temporarily punished over a rape accusation. The Orange County Sheriff's Office also investigated the rape allegation.

Mazin said he was shocked with how differently UCF and OCSO handled the rape allegation, after both agencies viewed a video that surfaced showing what happened during the sex act.

OCSO dropped its criminal investigation without filing charges, telling News 6 at the time a video of the sex act completely "exonerated" the accused. But Mazin said UCF refused to drop its separate conduct case, forcing the student to wait for a hearing before UCF's closed-door Student Conduct Board.

"The stress level is they can't sleep, they can't eat, they're embarrassed with their friends, their fraternity is not allowing them to participate in activities," Mazin said. "Their parents are frantic. Everything about their lives has been turned completely upside down."

Mazin couldn't believe the "exculpatory video" didn't prompt UCF to reverse its decision to restrict his client's ability to freely come to campus. UCF would not back down until first allowing UCF's Student Conduct Board to hear the case, according to Mazin.

"The fact that we had to go to that board when we had a video and you could watch with your eyes and listen with your ears that my client did absolutely nothing wrong, and UCF entertained the fact that the alleged victim was still claiming rape, when we're watching a video that shows that didn't happen – it was mind blowing," Mazin said. "It was mind numbing."

Ultimately, UCF's Student Conduct Board determined the student did not commit a rape, by finding him "not in violation" of UCF's sexual misconduct policy prohibiting rape.

"Thank God we actually had video," Mazin said.

But Mazin worries what the outcome might have been if it had been like so many other cases UCF sees – where the sex act prompting the rape allegation was not caught on video and UCF's Conduct Board has to decide who to believe based on their own words.

"Picture a courtroom and take away the right to counsel, right to remain silent, and the presumption of innocence and then you start to understand what these courtrooms look like," Mazin said.

UCF regulations do require a presumption of innocence, but critics of university conduct boards don't believe such regulations are actually properly enforced nationwide.

"We see a veneer of due process being thrown out there, but the decision is often made in advance, and the academic hearing is often for show," said First Amendment attorney Larry Walters. "Now that's not in all cases, and that's not at all universities, but we have seen abuse of administrative power at the university level and one of the reasons for that is the administrators personally have not until recently been held accountable personally."

Walters explained how a legal protection called qualified immunity has made it difficult for students to hold administrators accountable who violate student rights.

"They have had essentially unlimited power and if they abused their power – so what," Walters said. "Maybe the university is sued, maybe they have to settle, and pay some money, but they don't suffer any individual consequences."

But Walters said courts have been cutting the nation's universities less slack, particularly when it comes to violating a student's First Amendment rights through university speech codes.

"When you have such a clear and obvious violation of someone's First Amendment rights, like punishing them for offending someone else — something that's clearly within the scope of the first amendment – in those cases the administration will be held personally liable and we're seeing them having to cut checks and pay money as a result of their abuse of power," Walters said.

The recent case of a video showing men in UCF's Sigma Nu fraternity house making offensive remarks about rape caught Walters' eye.

"The First Amendment does protect discussing rape, singing about rape, joking about rape and things that might be very, very vile and offensive to most people, and rightfully so," Walters said.

After receiving the video, UCF temporarily suspended the fraternity until after UCF's Student Conduct Board could have a hearing.

After UCF's Student Conduct Board found the fraternity was not in violation of UCF rules, the university ended the interim suspension and released a statement condemning the "appalling" behavior, but also noting "offensive" free speech can be allowable.

"While offensive speech may be allowable, it is inappropriate in every sense," said UCF spokesman Chad Binette. "That's why we're working with the national fraternity office to help change the culture that led to this behavior."

Even though UCF ultimately ended the temporary suspension, Walters pointed out how "there's no question that a violation of First Amendment rights, even for temporary periods of time, is deemed to be irreparable injury by the courts."

Although there's no indication any Sigma Nu members are suing UCF, Walters said, "Students who have been impacted could very easily allege their First Amendment rights have been violated. They have been subject to ridicule. They've been subject to accusations of wrongdoing, even though their conduct was protected by the First Amendment."

UCF has not conceded any wrongdoing and has been defending itself against the three ongoing lawsuits in court, however, the university declined to be interviewed or comment for this story.