The investigative findings (state and federal) resulting from the massacre at Virginia Tech, along with other legal precedent, establish that the campus community is entitled to timely, accurate information about risks. As the Report prepared at the request of the Virginia Governor provides, “Nearly everyone [on campus] is adult and capable of making decisions about potentially dangerous situations to safeguard themselves.” Universities and fraternities must telling the truth and provide warnings to the adult students on campus concerning dangers facing them in seeking fraternity membership or participating in fraternity events. If not, they may be liable for legal claims based upon fraud, negligent misrepresentation, violation of consumer protection statutes and other theories of law.
Virtually every university that allows Greek organizations to operate on campus enables them to use university resources, staff, and website. Those resources are almost exclusively used to promote the organizations. For example, one Ivy League university’s Associate Dean of Students posted a Parents’ Letter on the university website proclaiming that its Greek community is “among the best in the nation,” and a community that does not live up to the stereotypical “negative images portrayed in popular media.” This communication is consistent with information generally parroted on university websites across the nation. Yet, this information is false and misleading. At the very time period covering publication of this statement, the university had documented: 204 incidents of social fraternity misconduct; 82 incidents of fraternity hazing; 3 sexual assaults in fraternity houses; and 9 incidents of fighting at fraternity houses. Its statistics indicated substantial annual increases in misconduct and were consistent with national studies regarding fraternities, hazing, rape and related risks. For example, the average FAQ webpage published by universities, including information posted for parents, poses questions that only highlight the purported benefits of Greek membership. Some questions actually dissuade students and parents from considering the risks.
A prominent Midwest university posted similar pro-fraternity material and FAQs on its website, yet failed to disclose that there were 10 allegations of sexual assault involving fraternities during one recent semester. Though two fraternities were ultimately disciplined as a result of such allegations, the University then failed to disclose that the sanctions were based upon allegations of rape and sexual assault. Instead, the university wrote an opaque description of the incidents, stating that sanctions were warranted because the fraternities failed to “provide a safe environment during parties where alcohol is present.” Whatever that means . . . .
Parents, students, and the campus community had no reasonable way of ascertaining that specific fraternities were disciplined because of sexual assaults reported by numerous female students. There is no rational or privacy basis for the university – a state institution in this case – to withhold this information. Women are entitled to know if the fraternity house they are invited to has recently been the scene of reported sexual assaults. Women are entitled to know if the University and fraternities’ agreement to allow self-management by fraternities has proven to be unsafe. Students must not be denied knowledge of the truth and opportunities to protect themselves from risks known by the university and fraternities.
The failure by universities to accurately and fully disclose known dangers and potential risks posed by Greek organizations may violate certain laws and enforceable legal duties. This is true because it is generally established that a university’s exclusive knowledge of such risks may create a special relationship requiring timely, accurate disclosure of such risks. Moreover, failure to disclose the truth may expose a University or fraternity to claims of fraud, as “a representation stating the truth so far as it goes but which the maker knows or believes to be materially misleading because of his failure to state additional or qualifying matter is a fraudulent misrepresentation.” And, where there is evidence of an intentional misrepresentation, such as, perhaps, where a university specifically chooses to omit the words “rape” or “sexual assault” from the description of a fraternity’s sanction, a victim who subsequently suffers injury having been denied such truth and the opportunity to take action to prevent such harm may be entitled to punitive damages. Of course, the law varies from state to state so the above information is not intended to provide particular legal advice to a particular person concerning the law in his/her state. You should, however, check the law in your own state and, if represented by legal counsel, ask her/him about these issues.
In short, the law demands that universities and fraternities end the longstanding practice of obscuring the truth – or failing to warn – about the risks of Greek membership and activities. Victims of these misrepresentations may have enforceable rights, and, perhaps, the legal power to change the way these institutions choose to do their business.