What Does “Hazing” Mean?

  • What is hazing?
  • Is such-and-such hazing?
  • If this one thing is hazing, then why isn’t this other thing hazing?
  • How do we know if something is hazing or not?

These are some of the most common questions that Empower hears from Brothers. The most frequent complaint Empower has heard regarding the National Fraternity, and in particular from members of the National Staff, is that there is no concrete definition of hazing and that what is and is not viewed as hazing seems to change from day to day and varies depending on which representative of the National Fraternity you ask. We believe this is one of the foremost reasons that so many Brothers are expressing frustration with the National Fraternity.

The apparent inconsistency of the answers and instructions that Chapters and Brothers get about “what is hazing” leads to a perception that there is no “definition of hazing,” and that the National Fraternity is simply “making it up as it goes along.” The clear and obvious inconsistencies in how Chapter events are perceived by representatives of the National Fraternity, and the growing disconnect between how Chapters view their own events and how the National Fraternity views them, continues to drive an unnecessary and harmful wedge into the heart of Phi Sigma Pi. Chapters and Brothers are tired of these inconsistencies being explained away with dismissive responses like “hazing is a gray area.”

So, where can Phi Sigma Pi look to find a consistent, clear, and working definition of hazing? Where can Chapters look for guidance to understand how to hold events without running afoul of that definition?There are three very clear answers: (1) The National Constitution, (2) State Laws, and (3) University Policies. Unfortunately, it has become obvious in recent years that the National Fraternity is turning more and more frequently to a fourth source for its definition of hazing and is paying little to no attention to what far more important sources like the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution have to say.

The National Constitution is the first and most important source for a definition of hazing. Article XXII, Section 1, contains the following definition:

“Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity neither approves of nor shall be responsible for actions of Members which may result in injury to persons or damage to property (i.e., “hazing”). Hazing shall be defined as, but not limited to, any action taken or situation created, intentionally, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment and ridicule, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate. These actions and situations include, but are not limited to: paddling in any form, creation of excessive fatigue, physical and psychological shock, scavenger hunts which involve illegal activities, one-way road trips which leave an individual to find return transportation, wearing apparel at any time or location which is not appropriate, required engagement in public stunts or buffoonery, morally degrading games or humiliating activities, compulsory consumption of any alcoholic beverages or controlled substances or non-controlled substances, and any other activities which are not consistent with the regulations and policies of the sheltering institution, or behavior considered as unbecoming of a Member of Phi Sigma Pi.”

The second source for a definition of hazing is State Laws. Forty-four states have laws which ban hazing by organizations on college campuses. Pennsylvania’s anti-hazing law, which is considered one of the broadest and most expansive laws in the country (not to mention the law with the most obvious application to Phi Sigma Pi, as the National Headquarters is located in Pennsylvania and Phi Sigma Pi is incorporated under the laws of Pennsylvania),defines hazing as follows:

“‘HAZING.’ Any action or situation which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or which willfully destroys or removes public or private property for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in, any organization operating under the sanction of or recognized as an organization by an institution of higher education. The term shall include, but not be limited to, any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug or other substance, or any other forced physical activity which could adversely affect the physical health and safety of the individual, and shall include any activity which would subject the individual to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact, forced conduct which could result in extreme embarrassment, or any other forced activity which could adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the individual, or any willful destruction or removal of public or private property. For purposes of this definition, any activity as described in this definition upon which the initiation or admission into or affiliation with or continued membership in an organization is directly or indirectly conditioned shall be presumed to be “forced” activity, the willingness of an individual to participate in such activity notwithstanding.” Pennsylvania Statues §5352.

Finally, Universities and Colleges in almost every state have adopted policies and procedures related to hazing. In most cases, those policies are based on the relevant state’s laws. In some instances,institutions’ policies may go substantially further than state laws. The Phi Sigma Pi Constitution makes it clear in Article XXII, Section 6 that Chapters must comply with their Institution’s policies without exception and regardless of whether those policies conflict with Phi Sigma Pi’s rules. Empowerbelieves that an essential function of the National Fraternity should be to monitor the anti-hazing policies at its Chapters’ sheltering institutions and advise Chapters regarding major changes to those policies.

Three things should immediately jump out from the definitions of hazing in the National Constitution and applicable state laws.

  • The first is that hazing is a reckless or intentional action. Neither Phi Sigma Pi’s Constitution nor any anti-hazing law of which Empower is aware punishes individual for mere negligence. The word ‘intentional’ should jump out at Brothers. This is to allow certain practices that some could construe as hazing because of the stress that they create. For example, the National Exam may be stressful to some, but the intent of the event is to ensure initiates have learned the information required to be a Brother, not to create stress. The same can be said about the Ritual.
  • The second is that in order to be hazing, an act or situation must endanger the mental or physical health or safety of an individual. This is perhaps the most important part of hazing laws. The reason, both legally and morally, why certain actions are called hazing, is because they hurt the people involved. Actions and situations that are truly harmless are not hazing. The history of hazing makes it clear that many activities that are harmful have been rationalized as “not hurting anyone” in the past. Empower agrees whole-heartedly that actions which recklessly or intentionally hurt people are hazing. But actions that are intended to be harmless and actually do not pose any significant harm to anyone involved are not hazing.
  • The third and final thing, which cannot be repeated enough, is that both the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution and hazing laws define hazing in very fact-specific ways. Hazing is not an activity that can be defined with blanket statements and generalizations. Two activities may be very similar on the surface, but the details of how each is conducted may make one hazing and the other not.

That, unfortunately, begins to sound a lot like the “hazing is a gray area” argument that has so frustrated Brothers and Chapters of Phi Sigma Pi in recent years. We must move beyond the mere definition and into examples in order for the rules to make sense. Thankfully, both the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution and most relevant laws include examples of activities which are hazing, such as: paddling, whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug or other substance, sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact, forced conduct which could result in extreme embarrassment, physical and psychological shock, scavenger hunts which involve illegal activities, one-way road trips which leave an individual to find return transportation, wearing apparel at any time or location which is not appropriate, required engagement in public stunts or buffoonery, or morally degrading games or humiliating activities.

These examples all clearly fit the common definition of hazing. They involve significant risks of physical and/or emotional harm. No one can truly call any of these activities “harmless” and mean it. Other activities that are substantially similar to these examples, and which also fit the definition of hazing (aka they are intentional or reckless and pose significant risks of harm to the participants) are not appropriate parts of any Phi Sigma Pi Pledge Program.

But if the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution and relevant laws include such clear examples and relatively simple definitions, why is there so much confusion over what constitutes hazing? The reason appears to be that the National Fraternity is not relying on these sources for its hazing definition. Instead, Phi Sigma Pi appears to be relying on advice and publications from two vendor organizations, www.stophazing.org andwww.hazingprevention.org, for its definition of hazing.

StopHazing and HazingPrevention are two relatively new non-profit organizations (which may or may not be related to one another, as both organizations do not share their ownership information publicly) that are engaged in anti-hazing lobbying and consulting work. They create publications and seminars on hazing, such as the Novak Institute for Hazing Prevention. Perhaps most famously, they hold numerous “webinars” on hazing issues.

There is little serious dispute over whether the current National Council and National Staff utilize these two vendors for hazing training and information. Members of National Staff have widely admitted to attending webinars from these vendors, and members of National Council routinely publicize these organizations (the National President even recently attended a seminar by HazingPrevention.org, an event that he heavily publicized to the Brotherhood). Most tellingly, Chapters and Brothers disciplined in recent years have commonly been required to attend anti-hazing webinars or seminars from these vendors as part of their probation or suspension.

Empower does not object to the National Fraternity looking to qualified vendors for programming, publications, and information regarding hazing issues and hazing prevention. However, the advice and stance of vendors can never replace or substitute for Phi Sigma Pi’s own definition of hazing, or override a solid analysis of relevant anti-hazing laws.

If there is a concern about these vendors, it is that they appear, at times, to support a definition of hazing that is not similar to the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution and that is not supported by any state law of which Empower is aware. This overly conservative definition of hazing removes requirements that activities be intentional or reckless and presupposes that numerous activities are harmful when they bear little or no similarity to the activities used as examples in state laws.

In the last two years, Chapters have reported that disciplinary notices from the National Fraternity have established that all of the following activities constitute hazing:

  • Any system of “demerits,” punishment (of any type), or remedial activities required of an individual Pledge or an entire Pledge Class based on substandard performance of activities
  • Any calendar of events or activities that results in Pledges spending time on Pledge requirements outside of “official” event times (whether the activities in question are technically required or not)
  • Any scavenger hunt
  • Any period where Pledges are limited in communicating with each other or with Brothers (whatever the reasons, whatever the length of such period, and whatever exceptions are in place)
  • Any use of blindfolds with Pledges
  • Any request to have Pledges close their eyes during or on the way to events

Each of these activities is one that is specifically used as an example of hazing by StopHazing. In certain circumstances, the allegations written by the National Council have mirrored the wording of that website almost verbatim. Yet these activities do not clearly fall within the definition of hazing in the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution or relevant state laws, and bear little resemblance to the activities listed as examples in those documents.

This is not necessary. It is entirely possible for Chapters to design programs and events of the types listed above that are perfectly safe and which support and encourage positive lessons and growth for Pledges. Can a Chapter hold a scavenger hunt that is dangerous and improper? Certainly. And Chapters who do so should be educated and brought back into the proper course. But Chapters that hold perfectly safe and educational scavenger hunts that are fun for the participants should not be forced to give up those events because a vendor has decided to throw an overly-broad blanket on a complex subject like hazing.

More importantly, this is not right. It constitutes an improper expansion and change to the definition of hazing in the Phi Sigma Pi National Constitution, which is not within the power of the National Council. If the National Council believes activities like this should be part of Phi Sigma Pi’s anti-hazing policy, their duty is to prove that case to the Grand Chapter and pass an amendment to expand the definition in the Constitution. That has never been done.

Empower is well aware that many other Greek letter organizations have heavily revised their risk management and anti-hazing policies in recent years. Empower is fully aware that some national fraternities and sororities have taken extremely broad views of hazing. Under the governing documents of some societies, activities like making prospective members pass written tests, learn fraternal songs, or wear initiate pins constitute prohibited practices. Empower respects the right of those organizations and their members to make those decisions for themselves.

But those decisions are not required by Law, and no one has the right to make those kinds of decisions for the Brothers of Phi Sigma Pi except for the Grand Chapter.

Empower does not suggest, and would never support, any position that hazing is not a serious (and complex) issue, or that hazing is not harmful, or that Phi Sigma Pi should tolerate hazing.Empower emphatically rejects any activities in violation of the National Constitution, State Laws, or the policies of a Chapter’s sheltering institution. But Empower does not support the overly-broad and overly-generalized approach to hazing that is, at times, proposed by third parties. If and when the day comes that the Brotherhood of Phi Sigma Pi decides to change the definition of hazing in the National Constitution, Empower will support the new definition. But that is a decision that cannot be made by anyone except the Grand Chapter.

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