Fraternity members file free-expression suit against Alabama university

The Auburn University chapter of Beta Theta Pi is suing its national organization and the university for violating students' free expression and freedom of association rights, guaranteed by the First and 14th Amendments.

The fraternity was recently disbanded by the university and the national organization after pictures depicting some fraternity members dressed in blackface and costumes deemed racially offensive by members of the campus community were posted on a Web site. The photographs were taken at the fraternity's Halloween party. One photo showed white students wearing Afro wigs, over-sized jewelry and T-shirts with the logo of Omega Psi Phi, a historically black fraternity.

After the pictures received national attention, the chapter lost its official recognition and 10 individuals linked with the costumes were suspended from the university.

The lawsuit also claims the university defamed the students by portraying them in a false light and identifying them as racists. The lawsuit is seeking $300 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

At a Nov. 21 hearing, Lee County Circuit Judge Robert Harper granted a request in the lawsuit for a court injunction to reinstate the suspended students.

The university is also facing possible legal action from another fraternity that lost its recognition and had five members suspended. The Delta Sigma Phi chapter was punished after pictures surfaced of its Halloween party, where members wore blackface and costumes similar to those at the Beta Theta Pi party. One published photo shows a student, wearing Ku Klux Klan ceremonial dress, holding a noose around the neck of a student in blackface.

The chapter's president, Matt Furin, said the fraternity plans to take legal action against the university for the suspensions, according to a Birmingham News article.