Gov. Justice vetoes anti-hazing law for being overly broad

March 29, 2019

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have expanded the reach of the state’s anti-hazing law to cover organizations outside of university campuses with student members.

In the letter explaining his action, Justice wrote he felt the bill’s language was too broad, though he appreciated the Legislature’s intent.

“For example, the following broad language appearing in the definitions of the bill: ‘any organization whose members include students of an institution of higher education,’ could include organizations such as the West Virginia Legislature or the American Civil Liberties Union, if any of their members were enrolled in classes at an institution of higher education in the state,” Justice wrote.

Justice encouraged the Legislature to revisit the issue next session.

Senate Bill 4 40 was a response to some West Virginia University fraternities disassociating with the university after more stringent regulations were placed on fraternity and sorority life after severe hazing incidents, including one where a freshman student died. Those fraternities can no longer be prosecuted under the current anti-hazing law.

The law defines hazing as any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding, forced consumption of food, liquor, drug or other substance, or any other forced physical activity that could adversely affect the physical health and safety of the individual.

It also includes any activity that would subject an individual to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact and forced conduct resulting in extreme embarrassment, along with the willful destruction or removal of public or private property.

The penalty for hazing is a misdemeanor unless the act qualifies as a felony. The misdemeanor carries a fine of no less than $100 and no more than $1,000 or no more than nine months in county jail, or both.

SB 440 was passed unanimously by the Senate and passed by a vote of 75-22 by the House of Delegates. Throughout committee meetings, lawmakers in both bodies questioned whether the bill would cover organizations like the Freemasons but still voted for the bill.

According to Inside Hazing, a website by hazing expert Dr. Susan Lipkins, hazing is dramatically underreported because oftentimes people don’t realize what they experienced was hazing.

According to a 2018 survey by YouGov, younger respondents were most likely to say they experienced hazing and 35 percent of respondents said hazing was a rite of passage.

WVU has launched a hazing prevention program in response to the situation on its campus.