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Harvard Argues Suits Challenging Social Group Sanctions Should Be Dismissed

Rebecca J. Ramos '17 speaks at a press conference concerning the lawsuit facing Harvard regarding the sanctions on social clubs.
Rebecca J. Ramos '17 speaks at a press conference concerning the lawsuit facing Harvard regarding the sanctions on social clubs. By Shera S. Avi-Yonah
By Sanjana L. Narayanan and Samuel W. Zwickel, Crimson Staff Writers

Lawyers for Harvard argued that state and federal judges should dismiss a pair of ongoing lawsuits alleging the College’s social group sanctions are discriminatory Friday evening.

Two motions to dismiss the complaints filed by the University argue that the social group penalties do not disadvantage either sex and do not limit undergraduates’ freedom of association.

The motions mark the latest development in two lawsuits filed in December 2018 – one in federal court and the other in Massachusetts — that challenge the legality of Harvard’s controversial social group sanctions, alleging the penalties are coercive and illegal.

Plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case are the international parent group of sorority Alpha Phi, Harvard’s newly reinstated chapter of Alpha Phi, and a management company for chapters of sorority Delta Gamma. Their federal counterparts are the international organizations for two sororities, Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma; the parent groups for two fraternities, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi; Harvard’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon; and three current Harvard students — not named in the suit — who are also members of all-male social clubs.

The College’s sanctions, which took effect with the Class of 2021, bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from holding athletic team captaincies, leadership positions in campus organizations, and from receiving College endorsement for certain prestigious fellowships.

In a memorandum accompanying Harvard’s motion to dismiss the federal suit, lawyers for the University argued that the sanctions policy does not contribute to sex-based discrimination “because the challenged policy treats men and women equally.”

The University also addressed allegations made by the plaintiffs in their original complaints that the policies infringe upon students’ freedom of association. Harvard’s Massachusetts filing argues that student social groups are not the kinds of “intimate associations and expressive associations” legally protected by the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act and that the sanctions policy “places no burden” on the organizations’ activities.

“The policy does not regulate the sororities in any way,” the state filing reads. “It does not, for example, bar sororities from continuing to meet and hold social events for other students on campus. It does not tell them what they can or cannot say or express.”

Harvard’s filings in both cases also argue that not all plaintiffs have standing to bring the suits because the Greek organizations, which allege that the sanctions illegally discriminate against students in fraternities and sororities, are speaking on behalf of their members. The federal motion further argues that John Doe 3 — one of the anonymous student plaintiffs who, as an upperclassman, is not subject to the sanctions — also does not have standing because the penalties do not apply to him.

Lawyers for the University addressed in their filings the plaintiffs’ allegations that the College employed “threats, intimidation or coercion” when debuting the sanctions. The motions to dismiss the suits argue students had full knowledge of the sanctions policy when they decided to attend the College.

“Plaintiffs concede that Harvard’s policy applied only prospectively to students who had not yet chosen even to apply, let alone matriculate at the time the policy was enacted. And Plaintiffs certainly do not allege that any student was intimidated or coerced into attending Harvard,” the federal motion reads. “Therefore, all of the students subject to the policy voluntarily accepted it when, fully on notice, they elected to attend Harvard.”

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in a press release that single-gender social groups are not consistent with the values and goals the College tries to promote.

“Harvard should not have to change its commitment to non-discrimination and educational philosophy for outside organizations that are not aligned with our long-standing mission,” Dane wrote.

Emma Quinn-Judge, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the state suit, wrote in an email that the plaintiffs “believe Harvard’s motion will be legally meritless.”

“It appears that in particular Harvard has nothing to say about the impact of the policy on single-sex women’s groups,” Quinn-Judge wrote.

The plaintiffs in both the state and federal lawsuits will officially respond to Harvard’s motions over the next several weeks. Harvard has requested court hearings to discuss both complaints.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @samuel_zwickel.

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