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Federal Judge Will Deny Student Plaintiffs Anonymity If Sanctions Lawsuit Proceeds

Rebecca J. Ramos '17 speaks at a press conference concerning the lawsuit facing Harvard regarding the sanctions on social clubs.
Rebecca J. Ramos '17 speaks at a press conference concerning the lawsuit facing Harvard regarding the sanctions on social clubs. By Shera S. Avi-Yonah
By Samuel W. Zwickel, Crimson Staff Writer

Three unidentified College students who are suing Harvard over its social group sanctions in federal court will not be allowed to remain anonymous if the case proceeds beyond a motion to dismiss, a federal judge ruled Friday.

“The Court, in the exercise of discretion in such matters, finds that the student plaintiffs have not demonstrated that their claims implicate ‘such a compelling need for privacy as to outweigh the rights of the defendants and the public to open proceedings,’” wrote Nathaniel M. Gorton, the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit, in his order.

Attorneys for the students — all members of all-male social organizations at Harvard — wrote in their initial Dec. 3 complaint that the unnamed individuals fear “the very reputational and professional harm that this lawsuit seeks to remedy.”

The undergraduates join the international parent organizations of two sororities and two fraternities as well as the Harvard chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon in accusing Harvard of illegally discriminating on the basis of sex. The school’s sanctions, which debuted in 2016 and took effect beginning with the Class of 2021, prohibit members of single-gender social groups from serving in campus leadership positions, holding varsity athletic team captaincies, or receiving College support for prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes.

Gorton wrote in his order that there is a “presumption in favor of disclosure in judicial proceedings” that holds in all but “the most exceptional cases,” and therefore precludes the undergraduate plaintiffs’ anonymity. He added, however, he would consider motions to seal individual documents on a case-by-case basis as the lawsuit proceeds.

The students will be allowed to proceed under pseudonyms for the time being, a request to which the University does not object, but only through the consideration of Harvard’s anticipated motion to dismiss the complaint. Given the students' temporary anonymity, the judge denied their request for a protective order, deeming it unnecessary.

Legal experts have said that the plaintiffs’ motions for both anonymity and a protective order were unlikely to succeed, and attorneys for the University filed a formal objection to these requests in late December. Friday’s ruling falls in line with the desired results articulated in Harvard’s previous arguments.

University spokesperson Rachael Dane and North-American Interfraternity Conference spokesperson Heather Kirk declined to comment on Gorton’s order.

Harvard must respond to the plaintiffs’ December complaint in federal court by Feb. 4. It faces a Feb. 8 response deadline for a parallel discrimination lawsuit in Massachusetts state court.

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

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