Politics & Policy

Hazing Hallucinations

Press event held by Rep. Frederica Wilson (in blue) in September, 2012.
Federal legislation would be an awkward weapon to wield against it.

In 2008, 19-year-old Harrison Kowiak died of a brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings he endured the night of a fraternity initiation at Lenoir-Rhyne College.

After a period of grieving, Kowiak’s mother, understandably, set out to stop hazing on college campuses. To that end, she secured a promise from Representative Frederica Wilson (D., Fla.), the self-described “Haze Buster,” to introduce a bill that would strip federal financial aid from students found guilty of hazing.

That promise came years ago, and no anti-hazing bill has been introduced since then. A few weeks ago Bloomberg News ran a feature explaining how the Greek community’s well-heeled public-affairs arm, nicknamed “FratPAC,” lobbied against the proposal.

Other outlets seized on the Bloomberg feature to vilify “FratPAC.” Salon and the Huffington Post chimed in, as did the Atlantic Wire. BuzzFeed put together one of their peculiar picture shows. And Jezebel, always home to sweet reasonableness and moral suasion, ran a piece accusing FratPAC of coddling “drunken college students who want to recreationally torture one another with impunity.”

Shot through all these criticisms is an unmistakable note of all-or-nothing moralism that conflates opposition to hazing with a certain policy response. To truly oppose hazing is to support a federal remedy for it, it is said. To say otherwise is to come out in favor of the practice.

This is hardly a new trick. Yesterday the question was, to quote Bill Buckley, “Are you or aren’t you in favor of helping invalids?” Today, it’s “Are you or aren’t you against the ritualistic beating of undergraduates?” Choose your next words carefully.

The correct response is to ask a few neglected questions and to lay out the facts. First, and most important: Will the situation on campuses improve if we make a federal case of hazing?

Some background is in order here. Forty-four states currently have criminal anti-hazing laws on the books. Even in those states where no anti-hazing law exists — Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming — hazing abuses and killings still have legal consequences. The laws against murder and negligent homicide everywhere apply; if those don’t fit the case, the laws against manslaughter; if those don’t fit, the laws against assault and battery. So, while it is often difficult to determine culpability when hazing occurs in private, under the current system no one is exempt from justice just because of the letters above his door.

The text of Representative Wilson’s anti-hazing bill has not been made public, but if it is similar to The Hazing Prohibition Act, a failed bill introduced by Representative Diane Watson (D., Calif.) in 2003, it is seriously flawed. Watson’s bill would have amended the Higher Education Act of 1965 to deny federal financial aid to students who have been sanctioned by their schools for hazing — the same promise Representative Wilson made to Mrs. Kowiak. But the limitations of a non-criminal measure in fighting hazing should be obvious. Far from bringing the long paddle of the law crashing down on the guilty, it would take away their Pell grants and Stafford loans. Far from bringing substantive justice to the victims of hazing, who are much better served in state criminal-justice systems, bills such as these are trifling measures with the potential for serious abuse.

The 2003 bill employed a broad definition of hazing: A student could lose his financial aid for committing acts of “cruelty” and “oppression” or even for forcing others to “curry favor from those in power.” Basically, this was a standard with endless elasticity — it could be interpreted to mean I have been “hazed” in every student organization I ever belonged to.

Of course, an elastic definition of hazing is unnecessary if the goal is to punish monsters who pummel and degrade their peers. If the goal is to punish every brother who merely organizes a scavenger hunt for new pledges, an elastic definition is perfect, although its overbroad purpose weakens the case for federal involvement in the first place and makes the case for depriving offenders of their financial aid seem almost ludicrous.

For action to be taken against an alleged hazer, the 2003 bill required only an “official sanction” by the school, with no need for a criminal charge; even an “oral or written warning” would suffice. Here is where the potential for abuse emerges.

As we have seen time and again, the authoritarian impulse among college administrators is strong. They do not particularly like voluntary student associations existing outside their mélange of codes, clauses, and quotas, and they certainly don’t like fraternities, many of which are unreconstructed redoubts of everything that drives college administrators batty.

If the role of judge in hazing cases is left to the Dean Wormers of the world, abuse will follow. Don’t expect the media to side with Delta House.

— Blake Seitz is a senior at the University of Georgia and a brother of Beta Upsilon Chi fraternity.

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