Members of the Yale Women’s Center board threatened to initiate legal action Sunday after discovering a photograph posted on Facebook.com depicting 12 Yale students affiliated with the Zeta Psi fraternity posing in front of the Center with a sign reading “We Love Yale Sluts.”
The picture made its rounds through e-mail inboxes around Yale’s campus Sunday night, enraging some members of the University community offended by what they perceived to be its misogynistic overtones. The men photographed in front of the Women’s Center are Zeta Psi “pledges” — students attempting to join the fraternity.
The photo was removed from Facebook.com later Sunday night.
The Women’s Center board is contemplating legal action against the fraternity, the University and the individuals in the photograph on grounds of sexual harassment and defamation, said Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09, the Center’s former political-action coordinator.
In an apologetic statement sent to the Women’s Center board Sunday night and published in today’s News, Zeta Psi Eta Chapter President Jonathan Charest ’10 said he hopes to resolve the situation with the directors of the Women’s Center themselves.
“The officers of the fraternity are open and willing to meet with the leaders of the Yale Women’s Center to discuss this issue further and address solutions of this kind of irresponsible behavior,” he wrote.
Since sending the statement, Charest said, he has received no response from the Center. Charest and other members of the fraternity declined further comment.
But the fraternity’s apology was “not enough” for the directors of the Women’s Center, who outlined their reaction to the event and the subsequent apology in a column in today’s News. In the column, the directors wrote that the fraternity only apologized when threatened with legal action and said the situation is akin to white students’ holding up a sign with a racial epithet in front of a cultural house.
Former Women’s Center Public Relations Coordinator Jessica Svendsen ’09 said she found a group of men chanting “Dick! Dick! Dick!” in front of the Elm Street entrance to the Center, which is located in Durfee Hall, shortly before midnight last Tuesday. Frightened, she decided to take a detour through the Center’s Old Campus entrance, she said.
“I stopped even before I got to Durfee, because I recognized that as a single woman facing 20 to 25 frat boys, I wasn’t going to be able to enter the Women’s Center,” Svendsen said. “This was my first experience knowing that misogyny does happen at Yale — and right in front of the Women’s Center door.”
The photo appeared on Facebook the next day.
Sunday night, Kathryn Olivarius ‘11, the Center’s constituency director — and Olivarius-McAllister’s sister — said the Women’s Center became aware of the photograph when a friend showed it to her.
The Center forwarded the picture around campus in an e-mail with the subject “This Time We Sue,” sent from firstname.lastname@example.org. “This is sexual harassment,” read the enclosed message. “Lawyers have been consulted, and we are taking legal action.”
Women’s Center directors said that as of Sunday they had contacted two attorneys, who had tentatively agreed to do pro bono work on behalf of the Center in the case. The Center declined to release the names of the lawyers.
According to Connecticut State law, sexual harassment consists of “any unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors or any conduct of a sexual nature … when such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”
The University’s policy defines harassment in roughly the same terms, adding that “more subtle incidents may also be considered sexual harassment.” Harassment can also include “taunting jokes directed at a person or persons by reason of their sex, [and] obscene posters with sexual connotations … .”
Olivarius-McCallister said the Center will pursue legal action as quickly as possible. Hannah Burnett ’08, the Center’s outreach coordinator, said she thinks a lawsuit is justified because the administration’s response to what she called racist graffiti found on University property in November proved ineffective.
“Look how little impact the administration actually has had,” Burnett said. “Based purely on what happened here, it shows that talking to the administration isn’t necessarily the most effective way to go about it.”
Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, to whom complaints of sexual harassment are referred under University protocol, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Regardless of whether the Center has standing to sue, Zeta Psi’s Yale chapter could also face penalties from the national organization, pending an investigation of the incident. The photo may be in violation of the national organization’s risk-management guidelines.
“The fraternity will not tolerate or condone any form of sexually abusive behavior on the part of its members,” the policy reads. “This is to include any actions which are demeaning to women and/or men, including but not limited to date rape, gang rape, or verbal harassment.”
Such violations, though investigated on a case-by-case basis by the national organization, could ultimately lead to the revocation of Zeta Psi’s charter by the national organization.
National-chapter officials declined to comment on the incident. They said they will have no comment on the matter until further investigation takes place.
The Yale Women’s Center, according to its Web site, works to “break down societal gender structures and roles and to ensure every woman’s right to reproductive freedom, a voice, freedom of sexuality … and economic, political, and educational equality.”