Suspended fraternity sues UNL over public-records denials

August 21, 2018

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln fraternity has asked a Lancaster County District Court judge to order university officials to turn over public records related to the organization’s suspension last year.

UNL opened a Title IX investigation into Phi Gamma Delta in January 2017 after participants of the Women’s March said fraternity members made sexually harassing comments to them — accusations fraternity members denied.

A separate investigation led to the discovery of “reckless alcohol use, hazing and inappropriate sexually based behavior” at the fraternity, the university said, leading to Phi Gamma Delta’s suspension in March 2017.

FIJI, as the fraternity is best known, won’t be eligible for reinstatement until 2020.

An attorney representing FIJI filed a total of seven public-records requests Dec. 1, 2017, seeking correspondence between administrators regarding the allegations of inappropriate sexually based behavior, hazing and alcohol use by the chapter and individual members beginning in 2015.

The request also sought a specific Jan. 22 email from Donde Plowman, UNL’s executive vice chancellor, to other administrators, including Chancellor Ronnie Green, asking about the university placing FIJI on probation in 2015.

“If I am not mistaking (sic) the Fiji house is already in trouble for something else?” Plowman wrote in an email to Green, then-vice chancellor Juan Franco, and Tami Strickman, UNL’s Title IX coordinator. The complaint didn’t state how the email was obtained.

According to FIJI’s complaint, the university asked the fraternity to remit a $1,600 deposit — the estimated cost of retrieving the requested records — and said it would take 36 hours to fulfill the request.

FIJI made the deposit and waited months to receive the records it requested, according to the fraternity’s complaint, finally receiving a complete response from the university May 25, 2018.

While the university turned over some records, it withheld 1,661 others under a provision allowing “records developed or received by law enforcement agencies and other public bodies charged with duties of investigation” to be exempted from public searches.

The university used a broad interpretation of that provision when it cited the exemption, the fraternity said, and it did not identify the “contents of the records withheld and a statement of the specific reasons for the denial.”

“If the University is claiming it was conducting an investigation, it must identify what the University was investigating, the policy authorizing such an investigation, and the procedures the University followed,” FIJI said in its complaint.

FIJI added the specific email it sought from Plowman, in which the executive vice chancellor asked about prior disciplinary action against the fraternity. The email was not returned as part of its request, even though it “fits the criteria of the public records requested,” the lawsuit said.

A university spokeswoman declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The fraternity is asking for the court to order NU to complete its search for the records requested, to identify the subject of its investigation, the policies authorizing it and the procedures it followed, and to specifically cite the reasons each record was withheld from the search.

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