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Fraternity sues University of Michigan chapter for years of violating male-only rules

What does the law matter? We’re ‘progressive’

If you’re going to be recognized by Sigma Phi, you have to follow its rules, starting with the most basic: males only.

Its University of Michigan chapter has been flouting that requirement for years, even electing a female president. Now the national organization, Sigma Phi Society, is suing to stop the chapter from using its trademarks, The Detroit News reports.

The lawsuit claims the chapter has caused “irreparable harm” to the fraternity through “infringement and dilution” of its trademarks while flouting its core membership rules for four years. The chapter has also harmed the national organization’s “image, identity, and goodwill”:

In a nutshell, Defendants want to continue to operate as a Sigma Phi Chapter, identify as a Sigma Phi Chapter, and use the Trademarks — without following the rules. Respectfully, Defendants cannot have it both ways.

David Nacht, who is representing the chapter, ignored the fact that it has chronically violated Sigma Phi rules and simply emphasized that its members are “progressive … These are people who are standing up for civil rights, inclusion and gender equality. And we just want to give them a right to do so and have a voice.”

The chapter’s fall 2016 pledge class was the first to formally accept women, the result of two quirks: A pledge the previous year started identifying as a woman while rushing, and another started identifying as nonbinary. That 2016 class accepted four women including Stephanie Stoneback, who served as president the following academic year.

It already tried and failed twice to change national policies so each chapter would have discretion over membership rules. The chapter even sent female representatives to the 2019 General Convention. Though the convention didn’t let them participate, it did vote on the chapter’s proposal, which failed.

MORE: Lawsuit accuses Syracuse of inventing evidence to punish fraternity

The scofflaw chapter continued using Sigma Phi’s Greek letters after the convention voted it down, prompting a cease-and-desist letter from the Sigma Phi Society in December, according to the suit. Sometime after its president and board members resigned in response, the chapter started using Sigma Phi’s name again, prompting (ultimately failed) talks between the two organizations this spring.

Last week the parties appeared before U.S. District Judge Denise Hood, who is considering whether to lift her Oct. 23 preliminary injunction against the chapter. It’s currently banned from using the name “Sigma Phi” and its Greek letters. Hood said she won’t issue a written opinion until this week, MLive reports.

In response to the chapter’s answer to the lawsuit, the national organization accused the chapter of making “inflammatory, unfounded, and legally meritless” claims against Sigma Phi Society that have nothing to do with trademark law.

Nacht, the lawyer for the chapter, claims his clients can still use the Sigma Phi name because the 2019 General Convention did not “de-charter” the chapter.

He told Michigan Daily that the chapter was founded more than 60 years before the national organization started using its trademarks in commerce, so it’s not even clear Sigma Phi Society can legally control their use.

The chapter’s media relations manager didn’t even try to make a legal argument to the Daily, but simply slung mud at the national organization for enforcing its constitution and bylaws.

Hannah Winkler said it was “just another instance of them trying to kind of exclude women from this organization that I’ve been a part of for two and a half years now” and protect “their little boys’ club.”

MORE: University thinks it can dictate how ‘banned’ fraternity uses its own property

IMAGE: Albina Glisic/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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