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No First Amendment violation in U.Va. hazing decision

Where a University of Virginia sorority that was told to eliminate its requirement that its student members study for academic courses at least 25 hours per week before it was reinstated as a student organization failed to demonstrate a First Amendment violation, its claims did not establish that the university’s hazing policy or its enforcement was unreasonable.


Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority Inc., or SLU, filed this action against the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia and numerous individual officers or employees after UVA found that SLU violated a hazing policy by requiring that students study for academic courses for at least 25 hours per week.

SLU alleges that defendants’ enforcement of the hazing policy is discriminatory, pointing that UVA sports teams “often require time commitments of their students in excess of 25 hours per week” and that “certain courses and academic programs offered at UVA require more than 25 hours of study per week to complete the courses and academic programs satisfactorily.” The case is presently before the court on the motion to dismiss filed by UVA and the named individual defendants.

11th Amendment

To the extent that SLU seeks relief against UVA under §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986, the claims are barred by the 11th Amendment. Similarly, to the extent that the individual defendants are sued in their official capacities, SLU’s claims for damages under §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986 are jurisdictionally barred by the 11th Amendment.

Qualified immunity

The Supreme Court has held that state officials, sued in their individual capacities, protected from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity. To determine whether a complaint should survive a qualified-immunity based motion to dismiss, the court considers: (1) whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff establish that the defendants violated a constitutional right and (2) whether the right at issue was “clearly established” at the time of the defendants’ conduct.

SLU was investigated for hazing after a student “complained to a UVA educator about the burdens of being a new UVA student and pledging for a sorority,” and the defendants ultimately suspended SLU as a result of the investigation. SLU has not been able to allege any facts that would indicate that such decision or action by university officials was so unreasonable that it constituted a violation of SLU’s First Amendment rights.

The same is true for SLU’s attempt to allege a continuing violation by asserting that the defendants conditioned its reinstatement as a student organization on the elimination of the 25-hour weekly study requirement. While SLU may wish to have more control over its members’ time or activities, SLU has not shown that such a conduct-based restriction is so unreasonable that it violates the First Amendment.

SLU has also been unable to allege facts sufficient to establish that it is the victim of viewpoint discrimination. A review of UVA’s hazing policy reveals that it is plainly viewpoint neutral. Finally, even if SLU could make out a First Amendment violation, the individual defendants would still be entitled to qualified immunity because SLU has not shown that the right at issue was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”

Remaining claims

SLU’s equal protection claim fails because, even assuming that SLU is similarly situated to the “men’s football and basketball” programs, the facts alleged by SLU do not suggest that the difference in treatment “was the result of intentional or purposeful discrimination.”

Next, to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff asserting a conspiracy claim under § 1985 must “plead specific facts in a nonconclusory fashion.” SLU has not satisfied this requirement. The second amended complaint does not set forth sufficient allegations to establish a joint plan or agreement to deprive SLU of its constitutionally protected rights. Nor does it demonstrate that the individual defendants were motivated by a class-based discriminatory animus.

Having determined that the § 1985 claim is subject to dismissal, the court must also dismiss the § 1986 claim against the individual defendants in their personal capacities. Next, because the allegations do not establish a constitutional violation, much less an ongoing one, SLU is not entitled to declaratory or injunctive relief. Finally, SLU has failed to allege, much less plausibly demonstrate, that “anti-[female] bias animated the proceedings, as necessary to prevail under either theory” of relief under Title IX.

Defendants’ motions to dismiss granted.

Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority Inc. v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, Case No. 3:18-cv-00085, Nov. 30, 2020. WDVA at Charlottesville (Conrad). VLW 020-3-590. 23 pp.