Amherst College’s Board of Trustees sent out an email Tuesday announcing that it was reaffirming its 1984 ban on the college’s recognition of fraternities and sororities—and that it would be taking things a step further this summer in a move that will take a significant bite out of Amherst students’ ability to freely associate. The Trustees’ resolution reads:
Student participation in off-campus fraternities and sororities, and fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations, is prohibited. Violations will be subject to appropriate penalties, including suspension or expulsion from the College.
The Trustees’ statement on the resolution reveals that its reconsideration of its 1984 policy was motivated by Amherst’s Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee, a group of faculty, staff, students, administrators, and trustees tasked with tracking the campus climate, as well as college resources and policies. Buzzfeed reports that some sexual assault victims’ advocates have praised the move as a belated and necessary step to address the problem of sexual assault on campus. Yet, according to Inside Higher Ed, the committee stated: “[I]t is important to note that we are not saying [fraternities] are disproportionately guilty of sexual assault; we have no evidence that this is the case.”
Some students are planning to protest the Trustees’ decision—as they should. While universities may decide not to support a Greek system, students should be extremely wary of limitations on the ways in which they can associate with their peers, even at private institutions like Amherst that are not legally bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association. This is especially true when a college enacts new provisions to be effective within months, leaving students the option of trying to quickly transfer to another university or abandoning plans they made based on the school’s previous policies for student groups.
Making things worse, Amherst’s ban on not just fraternities and sororities but also similar organizations is both broad and vague. Even looking to the language from 1984 does not make entirely clear what organizations will be prohibited. The Trustees’ resolution then prohibited the use of institutional resources on
any procedure relating to rushing, pledging, initiating or otherwise admitting to or maintaining membership by any student of the college in any fraternity, sorority or other social club, society or organization (however denominated).
With this ban applied to off-campus and underground groups beginning July 1, what will it take before a student group leaves the realm of prohibited “social club” and becomes a recognizable student organization? For instance, at what point does a group of 10 friends with a standing Sunday brunch date become a “social club”? Interfering with freedom of association raises this thorny issue, but Amherst’s vague and broad ban contains no indication that such problems were even considered.
Amherst isn’t alone in attempting to ban participation in certain groups. In 2011, Wesleyan University revised a policy that would have punished students for “participating in social activities” on the property of any “private societies” not under Wesleyan’s control, but only after FIRE wrote to explain that the policy violated Wesleyan’s promise of freedom of assembly. As we pointed out, Wesleyan’s policy would have prohibited students from social interactions on a “vast amount of off-campus property including houses of worship, the Middletown Elks Lodge, the Italian Society of Middletown, and a wide variety of private societies throughout Connecticut.” (Now Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees is debating whether to require its fraternities to admit women, which would effectively abolish them since most national fraternities cannot admit women, per their charters.) In 2012, Trinity College’s Board of Trustees imposed regulations requiring student organizations to achieve “minority gender” parity in membership and leadership and forbidding association with unrecognized groups. These policies, like Amherst’s, significantly limit students’ freedom of association precisely where and when students expect—and are entitled to expect—that freedom.
FIRE hopes Amherst will reconsider its decision.