Penn State History Lesson: The 2008 Mifflin Streak Lawsuits

The Mifflin Streak is probably one of Penn State’s most unique annual traditions. Each year on the Sunday night before spring finals, students strip into their birthday suits and run down Mifflin Road as the name of tradition implies. With this year’s streak right around the corner, we took a deep dive into the lawsuits regarding the infamous naked run that dates back to 2008.

The lawsuits are particularly noteworthy as they ensure that Mifflin Streak participants cannot get sued for public indecency or get in any form of trouble with the university or police so long as students remain safe and civil.

On May 5, 2008, during the 31st annual Mifflin Streak, thousands of students gathered on Mifflin Road to take part in the annual streak. However, seven students were arrested and charged with lewdness, according to Penn Live.

Five of the seven defendants pleaded guilty in hopes of the charges being reduced, however, the remaining two defendants filed lawsuits. One of the students, then-junior Elizabeth Burke, took her case to court to plead her charges.

Burke went on to a hearing that lasted around five hours. In the end, Centre County Judge Bradley Lunsford dismissed her misdemeanor charge of open lewdness and a summary count of disorderly conduct as there was no concrete evidence proving Burke offended or alarmed anyone, according to an article posted by The Daily Collegian on August 15, 2008.

Sociology professor John Fulton discusses the case in his class SOC001: Intro to Sociology, relating it back to the sociological concepts he teaches throughout the course.

“The original woman who fought the ticket back in 2008 made the argument to the court that there was no offense,” Fulton said. “Essentially, nobody there could be offended because everybody was there to see naked people.”

Fulton emphasizes the idea of social norms and deviance to his students when referring to Burke’s case, explaining the terms in a real-life scenario that hits close to home to Penn Staters.

“I’m trying to demonstrate to my students the idea that norms are dependent on the situation,” Fulton said. “The rules that govern our behavior are called ‘norms’. Our society is really great at coming up with norms that are closely tailored to the situation… I think it’s an interesting sociological phenomenon.”

With this, the social norms regarding public decency change when the Mifflin Streak starts, allowing students to take their clothes off since that is what the crowd expects. Due to the 2008 case, no one can be arrested or charged for the same conviction as Burke, according to Fulton.

At the time of the case, the university was allegedly discussing completely shutting down the annual student run, however, it decided to not take action due to the streak’s historical relevance at Penn State dating back to 1977.

In December 2009, Christopher Ferry who faced the same charges as Burke, filed a lawsuit against the university and five Penn State police officers. After being knocked down by an officer and then tackled to the ground by three others during the 2008 Mifflin Streak, Ferry suffered a concussion, broken collarbone, nerve pain in his right leg, and had to wear a neck brace for two months as a result.

The former student claimed that his shoulder never healed properly, resulting in him filing a lawsuit a year and a half after the fact. Ferry sought more than $150,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.

Ferry filed through the U.S. Middle District Court against then-University Chief of Police Stephen Shelow, officer David E. Bjorkman, officer Melani Median, officer Sean Gorman, and officer Mark Sinisi, according to an article posted by The Daily Collegian on December 8, 2009.

Before the incident occurred, Ferry was on track to secure a scholarship for running from the university as he was “highly successful and skilled runner.” The injuries suffered from the incident “greatly impacted” Ferry’s ability to run, the suit stated.

Two months after the initial suit filed by Ferry, Penn State officials asked a federal judge to drop the case against the university officers.

Between both cases, Penn State was put in an awkward spot as it didn’t want to take away a valuable tradition from the students yet it became a liability nearly three decades after the first recorded Mifflin Streak. Former Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims even stopped by the event at least once in previous years to show support to the students, while ensuring safety, according to Fulton.

Since then, Penn State Police decided to stake out Mifflin Road the Sunday before every finals week as a precautionary measure.

So, if you’re thinking about attending the Mifflin Streak this Sunday or plan on streaking, we hope this reassures any hesitation or concerns.

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About the Author

Evan Halfen

Evan Halfen is a junior broadcast journalism major from Newark, DE, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. Evan loves all things Penn State, tailgating, being loud, just about any beach, and his puppies, Butterscotch and Wentzy. You can direct all your tips, roasts, and jokes to his Instagram: @evan.halfen or email: [email protected]

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