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In Final Legal Push, Harvard Defends Motions to Dismiss Sanctions Complaints

Lawsuit Press Conference 1
Rebecca J. Ramos '17 speaks at a press conference concerning the lawsuit facing Harvard regarding the sanctions on social clubs.

Harvard filed documents Friday defending its motions to dismiss state and federal lawsuits alleging the College’s policies on single-gender social organizations are discriminatory.

“Plaintiffs have not pleaded any claim under any recognized body of law that gives them a right to overturn Harvard’s policy,” the federal filing reads.

The University is battling a pair of lawsuits filed in December in state and federal court that accuse Harvard of unconstitutional sex-based discrimination and infringement upon students’ freedom of association. The lawsuits target the College’s controversial sanctions on unrecognized social organizations — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — that prevent members from obtaining leadership positions in extracurricular clubs, varsity sports team captaincies, or College support for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit include international organizations for sororities Kappa Kappa Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta, parent organizations for fraternities Sigma Chi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Harvard’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and three Harvard undergraduates who currently belong to all-male social groups and have chosen to remain anonymous. A Delta Gamma management corporation, as well as a recently reinstated Harvard chapter and international parent organization of Alpha Phi, are plaintiffs in the Massachusetts state case.

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Attorneys for the University reiterated their position in the federal filing, arguing the sanctions do not constitute sex-based discrimination under Title IX of federal civil rights law because the penalties apply equally to men and women.

“All students, male or female, can still join an organization with such an exclusionary policy, but all face the same consequences under Harvard’s sex-neutral policy if they do,” the federal filing reads.

The University also insisted that because affected students were made aware of the sanctions prior to matriculating at Harvard, the policies do not constitute coercion per the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

“The challenged policy applies only prospectively — to students who applied to, and chose to enroll at, Harvard after the policy was announced,” the federal filing reads. “These students voluntarily chose Harvard, rather than a school that fosters fraternity life.”

The state filing argues the requirements do not impede students’ freedom of association because the social groups are not “intimate” or “expressive” organizations — and that even if they were, Harvard does not limit their rights.

“Fraternities and sororities are social groups that do not have a constitutional right to exclude members based on gender,” the state filing reads. “And they certainly do not have a constitutional right to prevent Harvard from allocating its own resources in ways that carry out Harvard’s values.”

Harvard’s lawyers further stated that several plaintiffs do not have necessary legal standing to raise their claims. They contend that the organizational plaintiffs have not shown that the policies harm them and that one of the unnamed student plaintiffs is a Harvard upperclassman who is not subject to the penalties.

Todd Shelton — a spokesperson for the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the national umbrella organization for three off-campus fraternities at Harvard — wrote in an emailed statement Friday that he believes Harvard is ignoring the organization’s “concerns about student rights.”

“I will say it is clear that Harvard continues to be deaf to our concerns about students rights and the devastating impact of its sanctions on women’s organizations,” he wrote.

Friday marks the last round of scheduled filings before the state and federal judges overseeing the parallel lawsuits decide whether or not the cases will move forward.

Shelton said the judges will proceed to either make a decision outright or, more likely, schedule a hearing to discuss the motion.

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

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