HRAAA May Sue Over Young Report
Claims Harvard Violated Civil Rights
Claiming that Harvard has violated its civil rights, a pro-divestment alumni group is threatening legal action to block controversial changes in the Board of Overseers election process.
Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid (HRAAA) says that new election guidelines passed in June as part of the Young Report illegally discriminate against Overseers candidates who support complete divestment of the University's South Africa-related investments.
The Young Report, which sparked protest from students, alumni and some overseers last year, called on the University to mail letters to alumni endorsing the official Harvard candidates for the 30-member governing board. In addition, under the new guidelines, independently nominated candidates--like Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, who was successfully nominated by HRAAA last year--would be listed separately from official candidates on the ballot.
"What the University is doing essentially is penalizing HRAAA based on its views on divestment," said Frank E. Deale, legal director for the Center on Constitutional Rights, which has taken on the case. "It's no different than if a person walks into a voting booth sponsored by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and in the voting booth there's a big sign that says the Commonwealth of Massachusetts endorses candidate X."
According to Deale, the 1979 Massachusetts Civil Rights Act prohibits private entities such as Harvard from coercing, intimidating or threatening anyone to keep them from exercising their constitutional rights, including rights to free speech. HRAAA maintains that the Young Report violates this law.
But Harvard attorney Michael W. Roberts, who met with Deale and HRAAA Executive Director Robert P. Wolff'54 on Friday, said yesterday the University did not believe the legal objections had any basis.
He said the Corporation and the Overseers, both of which must approve the plan before it can be implemented, have already examined the Young Report's legality. He said he expects the Corporation to approve the plan sometime this fall.
HRAAA has promised to file a lawsuit and seek an injunction preventing the plan's implementation, but Roberts said that Harvard "is prepared to respond and...will prevail."
HRAAA's case would be the first test of the Massachusetts statute, which is the only one of its kind nationwide. Yet despite the lack of precedent, Deale said he expects victory in the HRAAA case.
His organization, he added, "won't go into court on anything we didn't believe is a winner."
The privately funded Center for Constitutional Rights, which successfully argued the controversial flagburning case before the U.S. Supreme Court this year, takes on 80 to 90 cases annually at no charge, Wolff said.
Wolff said HRAAA's latest venture is not just a last-ditch attempt to keep the pro-divestment movement alive in the wake of statements by University officials that the issue of Harvard's $163.8 million in South African investments is closed.