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In First State Court Hearing, Lawyers for Harvard and Single-Gender Social Groups Spar Over Sanctions

Harvard Yard
A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard in front of Sever Hall on Wednesday morning.

Attorneys for Harvard and single-gender social organizations presented opposing views of Harvard’s contentious social group sanctions in state court on Wednesday afternoon — but Suffolk County Superior Court Justice Linda E. Giles is not expected to provide any indication as to how the litigation will proceed forward for several months.

The parties and their supporters — including past and present Harvard undergraduates and former dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 — convened in a wood-paneled courtroom to debate whether or not the plaintiffs’ discrimination claims merit judgment by the court. Giles asked specific questions to each side and requested that the counsel expand upon points highlighted in previously filed briefs — gathering perspective for a decision-making process that will involve “a lot of studying.”

“Obviously a very important case, involves a number of very interesting and not easy issues,” Giles said. “I will definitely be studying this at great length when I have more time.”

Wednesday’s hearing is the latest development in an ongoing state lawsuit — filed in December 2018 — alleging the College’s social group policy constitutes sex-based discrimination under Massachusetts law. In August, United States District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton ruled that a parallel federal suit will be moving forward with a subset of the original plaintiffs, partly overturning Harvard’s motion to dismiss that case.

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Plaintiffs in the state 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.

The sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of single-sex Greek groups and final clubs from obtaining College endorsement for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes, leading on-campus extracurricular organizations, and captaining athletic teams.

Emma Quinn-Judge, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, and Harvard attorney Roberto M. Braceras argued on behalf of their clients during the hour-long discussion. Quinn-Judge alleged Harvard is interfering with fraternities’ and sororities’ contractual relationships with their parent organizations, which violates Massachusetts state law.

“Harvard specifically told local chapters if they wanted to remain in existence and become recognized student groups, they would have to meet a number of requirements,” Quinn-Judge said. “And one of those requirements was that they separate from their national organizations.”

In his response, Braceras said the social group policy must have a “certain or near certain effect of resulting in interference,” claiming that the plaintiffs did not prove that the sanctions prevented single-gender groups from functioning.

“Harvard wants to promote its policy of, its values of non-discrimination. The fact again is, the impact of this on most fraternities and final clubs, they continue to exist,” Braceras said. “It’s true, some sororities do not. But that is neither the near or certain impact of that policy.”

Quinn-Judge also brought up the plaintiffs’ claim that the sanctions constitute sex-based discrimination because they treat men and women differently.

“A direct disparate treatment claim is that Harvard is saying to women, you can’t associate in a group with other women, because you are a woman,” Quinn-Judge said. “You can also flip that and it becomes an associational claim, where Harvard is saying you can’t join this group as a woman, because it is all women. If it were all men, you could join this group and that would be fine.”

Braceras said that the social group policy applies equally to all students at the College.

“The policy doesn’t even apply to sororities, doesn’t apply to fraternities, doesn’t apply to final clubs. It applies to students. It applies to all of the students, and they’re free to make their choices,” Braceras said.

As in past filings debating the claims, the attorneys also argued on Wednesday about whether the plaintiffs in the state lawsuit have standing to sue — particularly if organizations are justified in speaking on behalf of their membership.

Quinn-Judge wrote in an email that she expects Giles to make a decision on Harvard’s motion to dismiss the state suit in a few months. If the case moves forward, it will move into discovery — a fact-finding period that could include review of internal administrative documents and lengthy depositions from the Harvard officials responsible for formulating and implementing the sanctions.

Beyond the courtroom, opponents of the sanctions policy are taking multiple paths to fight back against the penalties. Single-gender social groups in Cambridge are currently bankrolling a lobbying effort in Washington, D.C. and the House Committee on Education and Labor approved a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that includes a provision that would imperil Harvard’s ability to enforce the College’s social group policies.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at sanjana.narayanan@thecrimson.com.

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

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