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Federal sex discrimination suit challenging Harvard policy will proceed

Harvard University in Cambridge.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

A federal judge on Friday ruled that a lawsuit filed by national sororities and fraternities challenging Harvard University’s policy on single-gender clubs may proceed, according to a court filing.

Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton denied a motion filed by Harvard to dismiss the suit completely, but agreed to dismiss three plaintiffs.

Among the school’s arguments was its policy enacted in 2017 applies equally to men and women.

But Gorton wrote in his order, “What matters is that the Policy, as applied to any particular individual, draws distinctions based on the sex of that individual.”

The policy in question barred students who were members of “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” like fraternities, sororities, or all-male final clubs from holding leadership positions in Harvard student groups or athletic teams and disqualified them from receiving fellowships, like the Rhodes and Mitchell scholarships, which require the university’s endorsement, according to court filings.


The policy was for students who came to the school in the fall of 2017 and later.

The plaintiffs in the suit — a collection of fraternities, sororities, and three members of all-male groups at Harvard — alleged the policy violated the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act and Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in any educational program or activity receiving federal funds.

Gorton denied Harvard’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claims.

“[P]laintiffs have alleged facts sufficient to state a plausible claim under a theory of gender stereotyping,” he wrote.

For the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act claim, the plaintiff must prove that someone’s rights had been interfered with or attempted to be interfered with by threats, intimidation, or coercion, according to Gorton.

And while he denied Harvard’s motion to dismiss that claim, he added the caveat that the school’s policy alone “cannot constitute the threats, intimidation or coercion sufficient to prevail on that claim.”


Among the plaintiffs in the suit, two sororities that do not currently have members at Harvard, as well as a Harvard upperclassman who is a member of an all-male group but is not subject to the policy, do not have standing to sue, according to Gorton.

The other plaintiffs — two national fraternities, a local fraternity chapter, and two members of all-male organizations at Harvard who are subject to the policy at hand — all have standing, according to the order.

Those two members of all-male groups, identified as John Does 1 and 2 in court filings, “are directed to reveal their identities if they choose to proceed with their claims under Title IX and the MCRA,” Gorton wrote.

R. Stanton Jones, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in a Friday statement that the university should “stop discriminating against its students and trust them to make their own choices about who to associate with.”

“The court acknowledged what is undeniably true: Harvard’s Policy is discriminatory twice-over,” he said. “As the court said, the Policy ‘discriminates both on the basis of the sex of the students in the social organization and the sex of the student who associates with that organization.’”

Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said Friday the school’s policy regarding “unrecognized single gender social organizations does not discriminate against any student, but rather is a measured and lawful policy that treats all students equally.”

“As such, Harvard respectfully disagrees with the trial court’s analysis with respect to Tile IX and will continue to maintain in court that a policy that applies equally to men and women does not violate the law,” said Dane in a statement.


She continued, “We are gratified that the trial court agreed with Harvard that the policy allows students to make a fully-informed choice and that the policy is not coercive under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.”

Danny McDonald can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.