FIRE to Congress: Harvard blacklist policy shut down women’s organizations

By October 8, 2018

FIRE’s Joe Cohn recently testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in a hearing called “Examining First Amendment Rights on Campus.” While most of the hearing was devoted to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, another important First Amendment freedom — the freedom of association — was implicated when FIRE and others raised concerns about Harvard University’s sanctioning of women’s groups.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, herself a Harvard graduate and founder of a Harvard women’s leadership organization, raised concerns about the newly-enacted policy, which adds members of single-gender social organizations, like sororities and fraternities, to a blacklist that strips them of academic opportunities, including recommendations for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, as well as leadership opportunities in Harvard-sponsored clubs and sports teams.

“I am very concerned about this policy’s limitation when it comes to our freedom of association,” Stefanik said. “I think it’s important for the viewers and the audience here today to know … that Harvard blacklists students who are a part of independent [organizations that] receive no financial or administrative support from the university.”

Stefanik referenced FIRE’s written testimony, which explained that while Harvard’s policy targeted male-only groups, it also resulted in limitations on women’s organizations. FIRE’s testimony read, in relevant part:

[F]emale students suspected that although the policy was clearly meant to address the male groups, it was they who would be disproportionately impacted by the policy. They turned out to be right. Interestingly, so far, most of the all-men’s groups remain, while every single women’s group has chosen either to go co-ed, or to close. Harvard, in its ostensible crusade for gender equality, now finds itself successful only at extinguishing groups for women.

Stefanik went on to ask FIRE’s Joe Cohn whether or not Congress should consider extending protections for freedom of association to students at private schools by tying federal funds to those protections. Joe responded:  

The ability to organize around collective ideas and to express your views on them is so important collectively [that] there are few areas where we would say having a financial tie from Congress would be helpful. This is one where we would. We would make it very narrow and carefully tailor it so it wasn’t all federal funds. We don’t want to encourage too much of an overreaction, but they should have an ability for Congress to say “Schools can’t tell people what organizations they can join.”

FIRE wasn’t the only group to be heard on this issue. Stefanik also entered testimony from the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, a coalition that represents the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference. Their testimony details not only the problems at Harvard, but also threats to freedom of association at Yale University, University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and University of Virginia. They further include a call to action: “If a university accepts federal funding, there is no justification for forcing students to forfeit their First Amendment rights as the price of their education.”

Stefanik also entered into the record written testimony from Professor Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College, who eloquently wrote:

I am no fan of government interference with private universities, but Harvard needs a civics lesson. The first of American values is freedom, and universities have a responsibility to preserve that inheritance. […] I love Harvard. Out of that love, and love for American freedoms, I hope this brave principle—that no one needs official approval to assemble peaceably—can be restored at Harvard and at every college and university where it is threatened.

Congresswoman Stefanik’s full statement and questions can be seen here, beginning at 1:37:50.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Blacklisting of Final Club, Fraternity, and Sorority Students