The University of Central Florida and its president, Dr. John C. Hitt, were sued Thursday by student media outlet KnightNews.com, regarding UCF’s handling of its recent hazing scandals and other issues, in a public records and Sunshine lawsuit.
Dating back from Feb. 2012 to the present, the complaint seeks to remedy ten alleged violations committed by the university that range from a series of public records request violations involving the University and the University’s Student Government Association, to Sunshine Law violations which denied the public access to recent suspension hearings on anonymous hazing allegations lodged against Alpha Tau Omega at UCF.
The timing of the lawsuit challenges the legality of the closure of Friday’s Sigma Chi suspension hearing, as KnightNews.com seeks a judicial order requiring changes by the University that would allow the public and media access to observe the hearings under Florida’s Sunshine Law. That law establishes a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities. If a judge determines that the closure is in violation of the law, he or she could effectively throw out the decision made in the secret suspension hearing.
In previous emails, the University has said that the student conduct panel is only a fact-finding body and therefore, isn’t subject to the Sunshine Law. The lawsuit, however, cites case law and UCF’s own regulations, disputing UCF’s position on the issue.
The lawsuit is aimed at showing UCF’s continued pattern of noncompliance with the Public Records Act and other Florida Statutes towards KnightNews.com. The award-winning media outlet’s lawsuit also seeks a permanent mandatory injunction as a solution to the roadblocks to public information put up by UCF.
The University has already hired Orlando law firm GrayRobinson.
KnightNews.com attorney, Justin Hemlepp Esq., provided a statement regarding the lawsuit.
“This lawsuit is about protecting the public’s rights under Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and Public Records Act. Everyone in Florida, including Knight News, has a clear right under those laws and the state’s constitution to inspect UCF’s records and attend university board meetings where decisions are made.
“Knight News’s lawsuit alleges that UCF has committed a variety of violations of Florida’s open-government laws in the past year, including refusing to produce public records, failing to explain the legal basis for redacting from records that were produced, and prohibiting public access to board meetings where decisions concerning discipline of student organizations are made.
“Knight News is asking the court to order UCF to remedy those past violations, enjoin the university from committing future violations of the same type, and find unconstitutional university regulations that place Student Conduct Board hearings concerning discipline of student organizations outside of the Sunshine.”
KnightNews.com received a statement from UCF on Friday regarding the lawsuit.
“UCF is committed to complying with Florida’s important open records laws,” said Grant Heston, UCF Associate Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs. “We are also dedicated to protecting student information, as we are required to do by federal law. We will vigorously defend this case.”
Continue to check back with KnightNews.com for more information.