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Student Protesters Appeal Dismissal of Divestment Lawsuit

Students from the environmental activist group Divest Harvard have appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit filed against the University last November, which asks the court to compel Harvard to divest its $37.6 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

The appeal, filed on Oct. 5 to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, is the group’s second attempt to use legal action to prompt Harvard to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Their initial lawsuit was dismissed by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge for lack of standing in a March hearing after Harvard and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office filed motions to dismiss. Superior Court Justice Paul D. Wilson ruled that the students brought their activism to “a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

Despite the initial unfavorable ruling, Harvard’s climate activists are adamant about continuing their legal battle. The plaintiffs, who call themselves the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, claim in their 113-page appeal that Harvard has mismanaged its endowment by investing in “abnormally dangerous activities” and allege that Harvard is violating its charitable duties as a nonprofit by failing to divest.

Though the plaintiffs may not introduce new arguments at the appeals stage, according to plaintiff and Harvard Law School student Alice M. Cherry, the brief seeks to argue why the dismissal was unwarranted so that the case can proceed in a lower court.

“It was an error for the Superior Court judge to grant the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” the appeal brief read.

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University President Drew G. Faust has maintained Harvard should not divest, arguing that the University can best combat climate change through the research and work of its students, faculty, and alumni.

This time around, the plaintiffs appear to have more external support to bolster their case. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and James E. Hansen, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the Harvard students, according to a press release. In addition, the Cambridge City Council has voted unanimously to support the lawsuit.

“It’s amazing to have the City of Cambridge, Harvard’s own hometown, throw its support behind our lawsuit,” said Joseph “Ted” E. Hamilton, a Law School student, in a press release. “This shows that many people support us and that Harvard owes it to the public to divest from fossil fuels.”

The plaintiffs—who are representing themselves without a lawyer—are all members of the group Divest Harvard, an activist group particularly involved in campus protests last year. In April, they staged a week-long blockade of Massachusetts Hall, and they have repeatedly protested via blockades of and sit-ins at the building, which houses Faust’s office. This academic year, though, the group has been significantly quieter, not holding any public protests so far.

—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at mariel.klein@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter@mariel_klein.

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