- SIGMA CHI SEEKS PROTECTION AGAINST DICKINSON COLLEGE
- ENFORCEABILITY OF LIABILITY WAIVERS
- FLORIDA HAZING LAW FAILS FIRST TEST
- STATE COLLEGE MOVES TO CLOSE TWO FRATERNITY HOUSES
- CONGRESS CONSIDERS FRATERNITY ISSUES
- PRINCETON CRITICAL OF FRATERNITIES, BUT RECOGNIZES RIGHT TO JOIN
Newsletter > November 2006 > "SIGMA CHI SEEKS PROTECTION AGAINST DICKINSON COLLEGE"
SIGMA CHI SEEKS PROTECTION AGAINST DICKINSON COLLEGE
Dan McCarthy, Manley Burke
The Omicron Chapter of Sigma Chi recently sued Dickinson College seeking the ability to exist as an off-campus organization comprised of Dickinson students.1 Dickinson, a private college, removed Sigma Chi’s official recognition in 2004. The removal of recognition occurred after the Chapter had undertaken a College-mandated membership review and removed the members responsible for the Chapter’s previous disciplinary violations.
After the Chapter lost its official recognition, Sigma Chi, with the full consent of the International Sigma Chi Fraternity and the Omicron Chapter’s alumni, elected to remain an active chapter, off-campus, as an organization in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, comprised of Dickinson students, but not recognized by the College. Following that decision, the College’s Director of Fraternities announced the College’s official position concerning Sigma Chi and other unrecognized fraternities. The College’s official position was that there would be no adverse consequences to any students for membership in Sigma Chi or any other off-campus organization.
The College’s position was consistent with language contained in the College’s official publications. The College, through its official publications, promised students many of the same constitutional rights that other citizens enjoy.2 Several semesters later, without consultation with Sigma Chi and without any disciplinary violations, the College abruptly changed its policy regarding membership in Sigma Chi and unrecognized fraternities. The College informed its students in February 2006 that students would be subject to discipline, up to and including expulsion from the College, for any “membership activities” related to Sigma Chi.
This announcement was unexpected for the Chapter because of the College’s previous official position, coupled with the specific constitutional guarantees in Dickinson’s official publications. Additionally, while the Chapter operated off-campus, none of its members received any disciplinary violations, either on campus or off, for Chapter activities. In fact, the Chapter flourished, receiving Sigma Chi’s highest honor for undergraduate chapters during the summer of 2006, the Peterson Award.
With the threats of expulsion hanging over the heads of the members of the Chapter and other Dickinson students who desire to become members of the Chapter, the Chapter chose to challenge the College’s reversal of policy in court.
Because Dickinson is a private college, Sigma Chi filed suit claiming that Dickinson breached its contract with the students. The basis for the lawsuit centers on case law that holds that the relationship between a college and its students, even private colleges, is contractual in nature. The terms of such contracts are established in the official publications, such as student handbooks, bulletins and student codes.
The Chapter claims that the College breached the terms of its contract by ignoring its promise to give students the same constitutional rights that other citizens enjoy. One such right that other citizens enjoy is the right of freedom of association. The College’s threats of expulsion for chapter activities violate the freedom of association rights of all students at the College, and specifically the members of the chapter. This violation of the students’ freedom of association constitutes a breach of the contract between the students and the College.
Sigma Chi subsequently filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, seeking a court order to allow the Chapter to continue to add new members while the case is pending. The Chapter’s motion is based on the College’s breach of the language in the College publications guaranteeing students the right of freedom of association, and the College’s departure from its previously announced policy toward membership in the Chapter. In this motion, the Chapter is seeking the ability to add new members during the course of the litigation. Without such ability to add new members, the Chapter will be in a dire situation because most of its members will be upperclassmen. After all, rush is the lifeblood of all Greek organizations.
The Court conducted a hearing on the Chapter’s motion on September 15th. Post-hearing briefing will be done near the end of November, and a decision is expected shortly thereafter. Look for future updates on this case in Fraternal Law.
The Chapter and the plaintiffs are represented by Tim Burke and Dan McCarthy of Manley Burke.
1 Joshua R. Erhardt, et al. v. Dickinson College, Court of Common Pleas of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Cumberland County, Case No. 06-2647.
2 The Constitution typically only applies to governmental entities and actors.