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Justices tell Harvard students they can't use the courts to make the university do their bidding on climate change

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today tossed a lawsuit by Harvard students who wanted a judge to make Harvard sell off its endowment's holding in fossil-fuel companies.

The students, upset that Harvard wouldn't listen to their arguments to divest, sued in Suffolk County Superior Court. The students said that, as Harvard students, they had standing to legally contest decisions by Harvard's powers that be and that by not selling off the stocks, Harvard was infringing on their academic freedoms and harming future generations through the deleterious effects of climate change.

The appeals court said nope, nope and nope, in agreeing with a Superior Court judge who had also dismissed the suit.

For starters, students have no direct role in determining what Harvard does with its endowment, so no legal standing to contest in court how Harvard invests, the appellate justices wrote, continuing:

The plaintiffs ... assert that the fossil fuel investments have a chilling effect on academic freedom and have other negative impacts on their education at the university. The judge understood that argument as an attempt by the plaintiffs to obtain standing on the theory that the investments had impacts that interfered with their personal rights. After lengthy consideration, the judge concluded that those arguments were too speculative, too conclusory, and not sufficiently personal to establish standing.

The harm to future generations thing? The students said that was a tort claim. But the appeals court agreed with the judge that:

[N]o court in any jurisdiction has ever recognized that tort, and in any event creating a new tort in the Commonwealth is the function of the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature.

The judge also stated that the plaintiffs had not provided any recognized legal principle in support of their unilateral assertion to represent the interests of future generations.

In conclusion, the justices agreed with the lower-court judge that the students:

[H]ave brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.

PDF icon Complete Harvard endowment ruling61.37 KB

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So the exercise of raw judicial power does have limits.

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Not the same as suing one's parents for a bigger bedroom, but along those lines.

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More like suing your parents for chain smoking cigarettes in the home.

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Or COPD because of it.

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For owning Phillip Morris stock.

(They say nothing of Harvard's use of fossil fuels through their energy providers, just their owning of fossil fuel companies)

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