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Alleging Sex Discrimination, Greek Organizations Insist Courts Must Hear Social Group Lawsuits

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

Plaintiffs in the social group lawsuits rejected Harvard’s Feb. 8 motions to dismiss their state and federal complaints and asserted the legal merits of their arguments in Friday court filings.

The plaintiffs argued in the federal filing that the University’s sanctions against members of certain single-gender social organizations is illegal under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, because it discriminates against both men and women. The University has previously contended that the penalties against single-gender social organizations affect men and women equally.

“The policy punishes a male student in a men’s club based solely on his sex and the sex of the members of his club. It also punishes a female student in a women’s club based solely on her sex and the sex of the members of her club,” the federal filing reads. “That is sex discrimination against both students, not neither of them.”

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane rebuffed the discrimination allegations in an emailed statement that referenced the University’s motions to dismiss the lawsuits.

“Harvard College’s policy on unrecognized single-gender social organizations does not discriminate against any undergraduate student and is a measured and lawful policy that treats all students equally,” she wrote.

The filings are the most recent developments in a pair of parallel lawsuits — filed in December 2018 — that accuse Harvard of infringing upon students’ freedom of association and unconstitutionally discriminating on the basis of sex. The College’s controversial social group sanctions, which debuted in May 2016 and took effect beginning with the Class of 2021, prohibit members of single-gender social clubs from receiving Harvard endorsement for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes, and from holding sports captaincies and leadership positions in extracurricular campus organizations.

Plaintiffs in the federal suit include parent groups for fraternities Sigma Chi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, international organizations for sororities Kappa Kappa Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta, Harvard’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and three current Harvard students who belong to all-male social groups and have chosen to remain anonymous. The international parent organization and newly reinstated Harvard chapter of Alpha Phi, along with a Delta Gamma management corporation, are plaintiffs in the Massachusetts state case.

Early last month, Harvard’s lawyers argued that judges should reject the lawsuits on the grounds that even if the plaintiffs’ factual claims are true, they do not show that the sanctions policies are discriminatory. They rebuffed claims that the rules limit freedom of association or otherwise disadvantage students of either sex.

Harvard also alleged that some of the plaintiffs do not have standing to bring the suits because the national and international Greek organizations are accusing the University of discrimination on behalf of their members. Moreover, since the third anonymous student plaintiff, John Doe 3, is an upperclassman who is not subject to the social group penalties, Harvard’s lawyers contended that he, too, does not have legal standing.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs disagreed, asserting that they do in fact have standing. They said that the sanctions have impeded the mission of sorority parent organizations and have caused John Doe 3 “psychic and reputational harm,” qualifying the parties to bring the suits.

“But even one plaintiff’s standing is enough to establish this Court’s jurisdiction, and Harvard does not dispute that two plaintiffs— John Doe 1 and John Doe 2—have standing,” the plaintiffs’ federal filing reads.

Harvard will have until April 19 to respond to both the state and federal filings . After receiving Harvard’s response, the federal district court will either issue a decision or call a hearing on Harvard’s motion to dismiss.

—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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