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University of Maryland quickly lifts blanket suspension of fraternities and sororities after litigation, public pressure

UMD’s guilt by association approach faced widespread criticism for blatant students’ rights violations.
University of Maryland, College Park website homepage logo visible on computer screen

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Guilt by association, or punishing individuals for their affiliations rather than their actions, is an injustice denounced by courts as “alien to the traditions of a free society” and a blatant First Amendment violation. Yet countless colleges impose system-wide punishment on all Greek life on campus because of the alleged misconduct of just a few fraternities and sororities. Thanks to the courage of a few fraternities at the University of Maryland, administrators across the country may think twice about abusing students’ rights in this manner going forward. 

On March 1, UMD suspended the social activities of 32 fraternities and sororities and banned them from communications with “prospective new members,” essentially the entire student body. Chapter members couldn’t even grab lunch together, and students faced further discipline for merely discussing sanctions. What specific misconduct prompted such wide-ranging restrictions on hundreds of students? UMD wouldn’t say. 

But students did not take this ban lying down. In perhaps the first-ever legal challenge to a university’s blanket Greek life suspension, four of the groups sued UMD in federal court on March 13. The suit, led by the Cincinnati-based law firm Manley Burke, describes the egregious rights violations endured by their clients: students unable to discuss classwork with their colleagues, chapter leaders threatened with discipline unless they turn over their cell phones to the university, groups left in the dark about the accusations against them — with no end in sight.

Within days, UMD backed down, rescinding all the restrictions on every group while continuing to investigate a few allegedly delinquent chapters. This comes after UMD’s ban and the subsequent ligation made national news, as well as FIRE’s March 7 letter calling for an immediate restoration of students’ basic free speech right to talk with one another.  

If universities seek to preserve the safety of their campus communities, they must do so without violating students’ rights and punishing the innocent.

This reversal is welcomed, but it should not take a legal threat and public pressure for UMD, a “green light” school with excellent free speech policies, to uphold fundamental First Amendment rights. Disturbingly, UMD is not the first university to impose blanket punishments on innocent student groups solely because they share a Greek alphabet. Syracuse University banned all fraternity activities — even those of minority fraternities — for racist words uttered by a nonstudentBloomsburg University disbanded all fraternities and sororities, even those who followed all the rules, because of unspecified COVID-19 policy violations. Harvard, not content to punish only Greek groups, sanctioned all single-sex organizations in a misguided (and unlawful) effort to foster belonging and inclusion. 

If universities seek to preserve the safety of their campus communities, they must do so without violating students’ rights and punishing the innocent. FIRE calls on UMD and universities across the country to make this the last time they impose guilt by association.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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