AEPi chapter may sue national
By Linda D'Angelo
Thirty-six of the 38 Alpha Epsilon Pi members attending the chapter's March 11 house meeting voted to investigate the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the fraternity's national organization, charging that discrimination against non-Jewish members was a factor in the national's decision to discharge 45 of the chapter's 55 members, according to AEPi President M. Travis Stier '91.
A brief, prepared by the house's ad hoc legal committee, has since been submitted to the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. CLUM "was not in a position to consider it last week, but they gave us the impression that they would get back to us fairly soon, perhaps before spring break," Stier said.
The brief was based on information that chapter members compiled for a meeting between Associate Dean for Student Affairs James R. Tewhey, Advisor to Fraternities and Independent Living Groups Neal H. Dorow, members of the MIT AEPi chapter and a representative of the national organization, according to legal committee chair and former AEPi President Christopher R. Liro '90.
The "main material" of the brief "was basically the highlights of the interviews" which the national organization carried out during its reorganization efforts, Liro said. "We were all interviewed and, afterwards, each of us wrote up notes about our interviews and what we thought was significant," Liro explained.
Most of the members noticed that the national organization's stated concern, the MIT chapter's violations of Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group risk management policy, did not seem to be the focus of the interviews. "During the interview process, there was very little emphasis on our willingness or unwillingness to follow the guidelines, while there was a fair amount of emphasis on people's feelings about being part of a Jewish fraternity," Liro said. Only six or seven AEPi members are Jewish.
The discrepancy between the national organization's stated reason for reorganization and its focus on the fraternity's Jewish character was the primary focus of the brief, Liro said.
One of the two primary reasons why the chapter decided to pursue the possibility of a lawsuit was a "moral issue," Liro said. "We don't think what happened was fair or right and we do not want to allow the national organization to do whatever it wants without being accountable," he added.
The second reason is more practical; the legal committee hopes to "get the eviction halted," Liro said. "The group of people here now [in the house] are interested in maintaining our integrity as a group," he explained. If the issue "is tied up in court," the members could possibly stay in the house. "That's one of the advantages," Liro noted, but it is "not the primary one."
The legal committee "decided on CLUM because it is the type of organization that is interested in constitutional issues like this," Liro said. That fact that CLUM "would pretty much fund" the lawsuit if it "decided the case merited further action," was also a consideration, he added.
AEPi forms ad hoc
While the ad hoc legal committee "was put together at a house meeting in February," Stier said, chapter members "thought about legal possibilities as early as Jan. 23 -- as soon as we heard about reorganization."
But at the time it was formed, the committee "was not even planning a lawsuit," Liro said.
The goal of the committee "was to investigate definitions of discrimination, investigate the feasibility of a court case, and check into our landlord-tenants rights," Stier said.
The committee also looked into the national organization's ability to take control of the chapter's bank account, the eviction process and regulations, and what chapter members could do to fight the eviction, Liro said.
The idea of a lawsuit "had been bouncing around," Liro said. But the Monday meeting, at which chapter members were able to state their case to the national organization, set the idea in motion, Liro said.
"We decided to do it after the Monday meeting because we didn't think that AEPi national was really able to justify what they had done on the basis of liability issues and because they were unable to successfully use liability as a reason for their actions," he explained. This "would imply that there were some other reasons," he said.
While the issue of discrimination is the main focus of the chapter's legal efforts, landlord-tenant legalities are also being investigated, Liro said, even though "it is a very separate issue." Landlord-tenant issues come into play because the house corporation, which owns the two AEPi houses on 155 Bay State Road, has sided wholly with the national organization, Stier said.
Since the relationship between the house corporation and the chapter is somewhat tenuous, the members want "to make sure business may continue as usual, at least until the end of the term," Stier explained.
While the legal committee has investigated this issue, it has not "found out anything for sure other than the eviction laws in Boston are very complicated," Liro said. "In some cases there needs to be just cause for eviction," he explained, and "being thrown out of a frat is not just cause for eviction, as far as Boston ordinances go."
The committee has contacted the Massachusetts Tenants Organization, Liro said. And while "it is sort of a bizarre case," the MTO is "going to look into it and get back to me, although I haven't heard anything yet," he noted.
Whether the chapter will decide to fight the legality of the eviction, or just stall the eviction date is still undecided, Liro said. If the chapter members learn that it is a viable option, they could try to fight the eviction, he noted. But, "to some degree, we would have to decide what are objectives were: it is possible that we just want to try to stay here through the summer so we could try to fight the eviction until then," he explained.
Damage to ILGs feared
InterFraternity Council President Miles Arnone '91, while supporting the efforts of the AEPi members, worried that "the lawsuit would cause more harm than good." If the lawsuit were to "become a widespread issue," Arnone explained, "a lot of damage could be done to MIT independent living groups."
"If this becomes a suit, what [the chapter members] will get out of it may be questionable," Arnone said. And for people not familiar with fraternities damaging "generalizations will run rampant . . . extending past MIT and AEPi," he added.
Arnone hoped "that the whole thing could be handled internally, within the MIT community."
While Stier thought that Arnone's concern presented "a viable scenario," he felt certain "that the brothers in the house would wish to avoid that situation, and will avoid that situation if there is nothing to gain in a lawsuit." As much as chapter members "would like to see AEPi national punished for their actions, maybe there is nothing for us to gain by doing so," he added.
Arnone argued that the factors driving the chapter members could also be cause for concern. If "the sole purpose" of the AEPi chapter members "is revenge, then I can't support what they do," he said. The IFC head "did get that sense from some" of the chapter members "and that can be very destructive to other ILGs as well as to the chapter members themselves."
Arnone hoped people "would not act without looking at the bigger picture." While he did not want "to trivialize the issue" of discrimination, he said that there is a lot more involved than one group of MIT students."
Stier, himself, admitted that "as human beings, there are a lot of complex motivating factors" involved in the actions of the chapter members. But, he asserted that "discrimination was the salient issue for most people."
Dean's Office investigates
The "Dean's Office is looking into how they can house [chapter members], looking into blocks in dormitories," Arnone said. In addition, chapter members "are trying to find housing" themselves and "there is always a possibility that the IFC could put them up in the other houses as a friendly gesture."
Stier felt confident that the "Dean's Office will support housing for us in the dorm system." At this point, it is a "question of how many of us can live in close proximity to each other," he added.
The Dean's Office, especially Tewhey, "do not want to disturb any of the people in the dorm system, but they do want to see that we can come out okay as far as housing," Stier explained. The office is "being fair to both sides of a sensitive issue," he concluded.