Resident-Fraternity Rift Highlighted by Lawsuit

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With a court date weeks away, a class action lawsuit filed Jan. 19 against 35 campus fraternities is highlighting ongoing rifts between UC Berkeley fraternities and long-time residents of Southside.

The suit brought by a group of Southside residents argues that a litany of alleged offenses by fraternity members comprise a systemic problem in the fraternity system. But chapter members and some residents said the issue is inevitable given the high concentration of students in the area.

Louis Garcia, attorney for the South of Campus Neighborhood Association and long-time resident Paul Ghysels, said that the lawsuit will shed light on the fraternities.

"The behavior-assaulting people, breaking people's phones, throwing rocks and bottles, public drunkenness-that's mainly what (the lawsuit) seeks to (address)," Garcia said. "It (also asks) for damages on behalf of the homeowners for the damage done to their right to comfortably enjoy their life and their property."

James Ewbank, an attorney representing about half of the fraternities, said the "broad brush" suit fails to link individual actions to alleged pervasive problems in the fraternity system.

"There's a handful of neighbors who have had an ongoing issue with a handful of houses," he said. "The issues have been different neighbor-to-neighbor and chapter-to-chapter."

Campus Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Grahaeme Hesp could not be reached by press time for comment.

Some neighbors of campus fraternities said that the only general issue with chapter houses are noise complaints, typically late at night.

"For some reason, college kids just have to scream (at 3 a.m.)," said one neighbor who wished to remain anonymous because, as a member of the clergy, his church did not authorize him to speak to the media on the lawsuit. "They seem to have to play their music in the loudest possible way ... if I were broadcasting Bach fugues and Mozart out the window with these big speakers, there would be complaints from them. (Overall), they seem to be nice enough kids."

Interfraternity Council officials and some Southside residents said progress has been made in recent years in easing fraternity-community relations, decreasing litter and having the fraternity system self-regulate.

"It's an ongoing issue that we have been dealing with for years," said Berkeley City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district includes most of the fraternities. "There have been worse times, but you know, I think things are actually better now than they were four or five years ago."

The suit seeks monetary damages, attorney fees, penalties for violations of state and city law and punitive damages to mitigate numerous alleged incidents where long-term city residents have allegedly been harmed. According to Ghysels, the suit also aims to establish mandatory live-in supervision in campus fraternity houses.

Such a move would not likely garner support within the fraternity system, according to one member who wished to remain anonymous due to a request within his chapter to not publicly discuss the suit. He said that likely resentment toward a live-in supervisor would make the position difficult to recruit for.

He added that the suit was too broad in its allegations and would do little to deter partying among students.

"You can't assume all fraternities are the same, and you can't blame a few people and the full fraternity system," he said. "People are going to want to go out and have a good time. It's what the whole college experience is all about."

Boalt Hall School of Law lecturer Stephen Rosenbaum said the issues between the fraternities and residents are not unique and should be resolved through community institutions.

"The problem is a well-known problem across the country; it's classic Town vs. Gown," he said. "When people exhaust all of their other possibilities, it's not ideal. It is better to use other kinds of neighborhood institutions to try and work (it) out."

But Ghysels said campus, university and law enforcement officials have taken minimal action against the fraternities due to his complaints and that community forums have not worked. With hours of video footage of the allegations, he said the legal avenue is the only way to go.

"Everybody says, 'They can't be that bad,'" Ghysels said. "What we are trying to do now is to make the city and the university socially responsible. They invite these (fraternities) here."

Kelly Strickland of The Daily

Californian contributed to this report.


Zach E.J. Williams is the university news editor. Contact him at zwillia[email protected]

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