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Newsletter > March 2021 > "Uva’s Anti-Hazing Policy Deemed Reasonable"
Uva’s Anti-Hazing Policy Deemed Reasonable
Ilana Linder, Fraternal Law Partners, Ilana.email@example.com
In the January 2019 Fraternal Law newsletter, we reported on a new lawsuit that had been filed against the University of Virginia (UVA) by a predominately-Latina sorority, Sigma Lambda Upsilon (SLU).In its original complaint, SLU alleged a variety of claims against the University after UVA suspended the sorority after an investigation found that SLU’s mandate that all members study for at least twenty-five (25) hours per week constituted a form of hazing. Hazing, as defined by UVA’s policy, included any action that is “designed to produce or does produce mental or physical harassment, humiliation, fatigue, degradation, ridicule, shock, or injury.”UVA specifically concluded that the weekly study requirement was causing emotional stress to SLU members, as indicated by all of the new members with whom the University spoke.
While the case was pending in court, UVA lifted SLU’s suspension and SLU was allowed to resume activities on campus. However, in order to be reinstated, SLU was required to modify its new member education program and eliminatethe twenty-five-hour study requirement. Consequently, SLU amended its complaint to assert similar, but slightly different, claims against the University, seeking to be able to reinstate the mandatory study requirement.
The trial court granted the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on each of the Plaintiff’s claims. As a preliminary matter, the UVA, as a public university, was found to be entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Therefore, the court’s analysis was limited to determining whether the individually-namedDefendants could be held responsible (in their individual/personal capacities) under the First or Fourteenth Amendments, Title IX, or Sections 1985 and 1986 of the U.S. Code. If not, each would be entitled to qualified immunity.
The court began its analysis under the First Amendment claims by noting that any university restriction on speech should be analyzed under the limited public forum framework. Under that framework, to be upheld, the speech restriction must be reasonable in light of the purpose served by the form, and may not constitute viewpoint-based discrimination. Here, the court noted that UVA’s anti-hazing policy was both reasonable and viewpoint neutral, particularly considering a university’s authority to impose reasonable restrictions to protect their communities. As such, the University had the ability to enforce its hazing policy against SLU.
Next, the court explained why UVA had not violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, despite SLU’s assertion that UVA did not sanction other groups/types of student organizations with similar study time requirements. Because the Defendants were not found to have intentionallydiscriminated against SLU on the basis of any protected characteristics, and since there was no finding of any discriminatory animus, the court concluded that the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.
Finally, SLU’s Title IX claim failed because SLU failed to identify any procedural flaws that led an erroneous outcome reached by UVA, a standard that the parties agreed applied to this case. Specifically, the court clarified that UVA did not need to find any evidence of physical or emotional injury or harm to support its conclusion that hazing had occurred.
This case reminds us all that even requirements that are well intended could be considered a form of hazing, especially when members are forced to do something they do not wish to do as a condition of membership in an organization.
Ilana Linder, Are Mandatory Study Tables Considered Hazing? 158 Fraternal L.1, 21 (Jan. 2019).
Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Senoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority, Inc. v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., No. 3:18CV00085, slip op. at 22 (W.D. Va Nov. 30, 2020).
SLU was still permitted to encourage its members to study for at least twenty-five hours per week, but it could not be a condition upon which membership was based to avoid being deemed “hazing.”