A University of Virginia student suspended for two years for assaulting another student has filed a $1.25 million lawsuit against the school's president and trustees, alleging that his rights were violated during the disciplinary process.
The lawsuit by Richard W. Smith, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, says that his punishment was too harsh and that the school's handling of his case created a "climate of outrage" against him on campus.
University President John T. Casteen III ordered Smith's suspension last month after an extended disciplinary process that sparked a protest rally in April by 300 students. The demonstrators criticized administrators for failing to back a student judicial panel that had recommended Smith's expulsion for the 1997 assault. Some protesters alleged that Smith was getting special treatment because he is the son of Frederick W. Smith, chairman of the parent company of Federal Express.
In his 55-page lawsuit, however, Smith says that he was consistently deprived of his right to due process. Casteen, the school's Board of Visitors, U-Va. Vice President for Student Affairs William W. Harmon and seven students who served on the school's judiciary committee are named as defendants. The lawsuit seeks no monetary damages from the students.
U-Va. officials declined to comment on the case, but spokeswoman Louise Dudley said yesterday that the school will "vigorously defend" against the lawsuit.
The case began on Nov. 21, 1997, when Alexander "Sandy" Kory, of Falls Church, was assaulted while walking alone on campus and suffered injuries to his jaw.
Smith later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and served 21 days in jail. Two classmates, Harrison K. Tigrett and Bradley C. Kintz, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. All three recently completed their junior year.
In his lawsuit, Smith alleges that a 1998 hearing before the student judicial panel that recommended his expulsion was improperly held in his absence after Harmon told him it would be postponed.
In May, a review panel held a second hearing and recommended that Smith receive a two-semester suspension. Smith alleges that Casteen later made a "sham" of the process by deciding on his own to impose the two-year suspension.
The proceedings against Smith were held in an "environment so tainted by adverse publicity and sentiment" that fair treatment was "impossible," the lawsuit alleges.
At one point a disciplinary hearing was canceled after some students involved reportedly said they feared they might be sued by Smith or the two other defendants. A school official told the student newspaper that those concerns could have stemmed from a slander lawsuit Smith filed against a woman who testified at the first hearing that Smith hurt her son in a high school wrestling match.
Smith also alleges in the suit that the school has not suspended any other students for physical altercations in the past 10 years. Dudley said she could not confirm that statement.
Casteen gave Tigrett a one-year suspension for his role in the attack on Kory, and he suspended Kintz for one semester.