Federal appeals panel rejects fraternity’s free-association claim

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

The University of Pittsburgh did not violate Pi Lambda Phi’s First
Amendment rights when university officials stripped the fraternity of its
status as a recognized student organization, a federal appeals court panel has

The disciplinary action followed a raid by city police on the local
chapter’s fraternity house in April 1996. Several members of the fraternity
were arrested after police found various drugs, including cocaine, heroin and
Rohypnol, the “date rape” drug.

University officials suspended the chapter in May 1996 pending an
investigation, and then revoked the fraternity’s status for one year.

In April 1997, the fraternity and several members, who were not
involved in the drug activity, sued in federal court, contending that the
actions of university officials had violated its First Amendment
free-association rights.

U.S. District Judge Donald E. Zeigler rejected the fraternity’s
free-association claims in August 1999, and last week, a three-judge panel of
the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed in
Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity, Inc. v. University of

Although the First Amendment does not specifically mention a right of
association, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the amendment does
provide protection for both intimate and expressive association.

“Intimate association” refers to close human relationships, such as
marriage, upon which the state has no power to intrude. “Expressive
association” refers to associating for the purpose of engaging in First
Amendment-protected activity, i.e., exercising the right to freedom of speech,
assembly, religion or petition.

The appeals court panel determined that the chapter’s “size, lack of
selectivity and lack of seclusion in its activities” all weighed against its
intimate association claim. The panel concluded that the chapter lacked “the
essential characteristics of constitutionally protected intimate

The appeals court panel also rejected the fraternity’s expressive
association claim. The panel noted that “there is no requirement that an
organization be primarily political (or even primarily expressive) in order to
receive constitutional protection for expressive associational activity.”

However, the 3rd Circuit panel noted that there is a minimal threshold
for expressive activity claims.

“Nothing in the record indicates that the Chapter ever took a public
stance on any issue of public political, social, or cultural importance,” the
panel wrote in its Oct. 25 opinion. “In sum, an organization must do more than
simply claim to be an expressive association in order to receive the benefits
of constitutional protection.”

The fraternity had argued that it should qualify for First Amendment
protection because many of its members had participated in charity events.
However, the panel described the fraternity’s evidence as a “meager showing of
a few minor acts of community service.”

The panel cautioned that it was “not holding that fraternities per se
do not engage in constitutionally protected expressive association.”

“We hold only that the University chapter of Pi Lambda Phi has failed
to make out such a claim on the record before us,” the panel concluded.

Edward Olds, attorney for the fraternity, said the “fraternity is
entitled to associational protection.”

“None of the parties in this case were involved in wrongdoing,” Olds
said. “Certain members, who were not parties to the suit, used the drugs. This
practice was not condoned, or even known about by the other members.”

Olds said the fraternity lost its affiliation “solely by guilt of

A call placed to the attorney for the university was not returned.

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