Lafayette College's frat flap raises constitutional concerns

In the delightful 1970 movie "The Cheyenne Social Club," Jimmy Stewart plays an aging Texas cowpoke whose dream of becoming "a respectable Republican businessman" comes true when he inherits a thriving business up in Wyoming.

It turns out the business indeed belongs to him, but there's a catch. The establishment is on railroad property and the railroad will let it remain only if he agrees to continue to operate it as always — as a high-class brothel.

That suits his less-respectable sidekick, played by Henry Fonda, just fine.

The cowpoke, however, has a problem acquiescing to the railroad's rules, which it can impose just because it owns the land. Various problems arise, including a gunfight in which a bad guy is killed by a pecan.

Some students at Lafayette College in Easton know exactly how the cowpoke felt.

They had their own fraternity and a frat house, but it sat on college property and some college officials started thinking about another movie, "Animal House," which was released eight years later.

The 1978 film was about efforts to get rid of a fraternity at another (fictional) Pennsylvania college, one member of which was played by John Belushi, whose imitation of a zit was truly memorable.

A real-life saga at Lafayette involves the "Greek" system in general. The school's board of trustees got in a snit last year after a study of fraternity and sorority members revealed problems involving a lack of scholarship, drinking, sex, hazing and a lack of diversity (not enough minorities).

In November, alumni from the Rho chapter of the Chi Phi fraternity filed a lawsuit in Northampton County Court, claiming that the college illegally seized its on-campus "Vallamont" frat house.

If it's on-campus, I thought at the time, it belongs to the college every bit as much as the land under that brothel in Cheyenne, Wyo., belonged to the railroad.

I must confess I have a strong bias when it comes to Lafayette, and I hope that's not why I took the administration's side in the Chi Phi frat flap. Our eldest grandchild, Megan, graduated in 2008 and thanks to that college's superb preparations, she now is working on a doctorate in molecular biology and genetics at the University of Delaware. (Please don't ask me for details; it's all Greek to me, excuse the expression.)

Now, there is a new twist in Lafayette's Greek grief. A statement from an alumni outfit called Friends of Lafayette College said the college's board of trustees and its administration have "no sense of decency." It compared them to "the ugly, wholly un-American truth of the congressional hearings led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy."

I remember the McCarthyism era of the 1950s and how he and other demagogues violated people's rights, until McCarthy was vanquished after he accused the Army of harboring communists. "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" Army counsel Joseph Welch asked during a hearing.

That piquant pecan of dialogue marked the start of McCarthy's downfall, but not before thousands of lives were destroyed, many of them because of guilt by association.

The Friends statement said Lafayette threatened students with expulsion or criminal prosecution if they joined or even supported "underground" organizations not sanctioned by college authorities. "Students are free to organize and join associations to promote their common interests, so long as such interests are not inconsistent with the policies, purposes, function and mission of the college," the release quoted Lafayette President Dan Weiss as saying.

That is not a case of a college deciding what to do with a frat house or other parts of its own property. That is telling people what sort of organizations they can join and what sort of beliefs they must espouse.

The Friends release, sent to me anonymously and containing little contact information, said such "dictatorial" positions are "contrary to American ideals."

I wanted to check on all this so I called the college's press office and was asked to submit questions via email to Roger Clow, Lafayette's director of communications. Among other things, I asked if the statements ascribed to Weiss were accurate.

Clow replied by email and did not comment on the Weiss comments or answer other questions, but did say this:

"The college has no interest in restricting the rights of students to associate freely. The board [of trustees] is concerned that unrecognized Greek organizations operating outside college guidelines may undermine the efforts of the recognized fraternities and sororities to operate according to community standards, and may place the health and safety of students at risk."

That does not address the issue of what distinction should be made between a college exercising its rights over its own property and using its power to tell people what sort of associations they may have.

When I went looking for somebody at Friends of Lafayette College, I got a return call from a retired lawyer, Don Applestein, who is prominently affiliated with the National Constitution Center's Public Programs Department in Philadelphia.

(My first thought was that, if Lafayette takes on the National Constitution Center, it will be like McCarthy taking on the Army.)

I asked Applestein about the elements of secrecy in the Friends' release. That, he said, was because of the fear that students who buck the administration may be targeted. "The administration has had a history of retribution," he said.

Applestein said the issue may come to a head in January or early February, when the board of trustees is next expected to meet.

Where are Joseph Welch and Belushi's Bluto now that we really need them?

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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