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Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Introduces Legislation That Could Endanger Harvard’s Sanctions

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The United States Capitol houses both chambers of Congress.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that could imperil Harvard College’s social group sanctions Wednesday.

The bill — called the College Freedom of Association Act — seeks to amend the Higher Education Act “to uphold freedom of association protections,” according to a summary.

The CFAA would prevent universities from penalizing students who are members of single-gender organizations, whether or not the groups are officially recognized. If passed, it would almost certainly bar the College from enforcing its policies.

The College’s sanctions — which took effect with the Class of 2021 — bar members of unrecognized single-gender final clubs, fraternities, and sororities from holding leadership positions in recognized student groups, captaining varsity athletic teams, and receiving College endorsements for certain prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.

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Rep. Ruben M. Gallego ’02 (D-AZ), who introduced the bill, wrote in an emailed statement that his decision to support it is rooted in his own fraternity experience at the College.

“All Americans have a constitutional right to freedom of association, and this legislation merely reinforces these rights for students enrolled in college,” he wrote. “I have personally benefited from opportunities to form life-long friends at Harvard University as a member of Sigma Chi, and that support system helped me through difficult times after I returned from the Iraq war.”

The CFAA marks the second legislative attempt that could impact the sanctions in the past two years. A group of Republican representatives spent much of 2018 pushing for a revision to existing higher education law called the PROSPER Act that dealt in part with social group policies. Last year, experts said that bill was almost certainly doomed.

The new bill is slightly different, however. Its sponsors, numbering eight Democrats and six Republicans, represent a cross-section of the 116th Congress. At least one of them — Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-NY) — was also involved in pushing PROSPER.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the bill.

The bill may represent the outgrowth of a legislative strategy several social groups took up last year, hiring lobbying firm Arnold & Porter and traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. Twelve of the CFAA’s 14 sponsors received donations in the 2018 election cycle from a pro-Greek life political action committee whose board includes a graduate of the Porcellian Club.

Arnold & Porter lobbyist Kevin O’Neill wrote in an emailed statement that his firm’s clients — including a coalition of all-male social groups dubbed the Cambridge Coalition — support the CFAA.

“Arnold and Porter is registered to lobby for the Cambridge Coalition and the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition,” he wrote. “Each of these entities has been lobbying Congress to use the higher education reauthorization process to ensure students are not forced to sacrifice their first amendment freedom of association rights as a cost of pursuing a college degree.”

The CFAA is not the only live threat to the sanctions. Harvard is also currently facing a pair of lawsuits — one state-level, one federal — brought by a coalition of fraternities, sororities, and several anonymous students. The plaintiffs in both cases argue that the policy discriminates on the basis of sex and impairs their freedom of association.

After receiving filings from both sides this spring, state and federal judges in Massachusetts will decide whether to let the case move forward.

The CFAA was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor for review June 5.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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