A coalition of male and female Harvard students and organizations announced today that they are suing Harvard University in Massachusetts federal and state court over the college’s recently enacted policy of blacklisting students deemed to be members of single-sex sororities, fraternities, and Harvard-specific final clubs. All such organizations are, and for decades have been, off-campus organizations totally independent of the university. This means that Harvard has determined that it will deny students educational opportunities, including Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, as well as leadership positions in recognized organizations, if a closed-door tribunal determines that the answer to a question like “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Delta Gamma sorority” is “yes.”
For the last two years, FIRE has led the public battle against Harvard’s disgraceful decision to re-institutionalize official discrimination against members of its community for their supposedly unsavory associations. Harvard has gone down this road twice in the last hundred years — first with its 1920s “secret court” targeting gay students (or those deemed too close to them), resulting in one student’s suicide, and then again during the McCarthy era. Both times are counted among the university’s most shameful episodes.
Further, FIRE has repeatedly made clear to Harvard students, both through our advocacy and through prominent ads in the Harvard Crimson, that today’s blacklist is more of the same injustice, and that FIRE is there to help students accused of membership in outside organizations. Accusations, we note, that an unjustly accused student cannot even disprove. After all, how do you demonstrate that you are not a member of an organization whose membership rolls are not available to the people making that decision?
Now some actual, non-secret courts will get a chance to weigh in on these obvious injustices and determine whether such discrimination is acceptable, even at a private university like Harvard. (And they don’t get more powerful and private than Harvard.) As described on the coalition’s excellent Stand Up to Harvard website, the lawsuits bring the following claims:
In the federal suit, a broad coalition of students and women’s and men’s organizations impacted by Harvard’s sanctions—two international sororities, two international fraternities, a Cambridge fraternity chapter, and three current Harvard students—assert that through the sanctions policy, the President and Fellows of Harvard College have interfered with students’ right to be free of sex discrimination, as guaranteed by Title IX and the U.S. Constitution.
In the suit filed in Massachusetts court, three women’s organizations—an international sorority, one of its chapters, and a sorority housing corporation—assert that Harvard has interfered with student’s rights to free association and equal treatment based on sex, both of which are protected by the Massachusetts Constitution. Alleging violations of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, the suit seeks to bring a stop to Harvard’s sanctions by calling for an injunction prohibiting the University from continuing to unlawfully punish students.
The plaintiffs have scheduled a press conference for 1 p.m. today at the Sheraton Commander in Harvard’s hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts. (By way of disclosure, I would note that FIRE board member and co-founder Harvey Silverglate is listed as “of counsel” for the plaintiffs on the state filing. This was in his private capacity, not in his capacity as someone with FIRE, and we did not have any prior notice of the substance of the case or its filing today.) You can be sure that FIRE will be following these cases with great interest — and will continue to be there for any students swept up in the maw of Harvard’s latest attack on freedom of association.