How do universities and the criminal justice system regulate hazing?

Joost Nan

It almost seems to be a recurring trend: a student association making negative headlines at the beginning of the academic year due to disturbances during hazing rituals. Society and universities are strict when it comes to hazing that crosses boundaries. Joost Nan, Professor of Criminal (Procedural) Law at Erasmus School of Law, answered questions from EenVandaag about what is allowed and what is not during hazing activities and when criminal law may come into play.

In criminal law, hazing rituals have a somewhat unique character, as they are often seen as a form of sports and games in legal precedents. For example, in soccer, a tackle that does not follow the rules is not automatically considered a criminal assault. Of course, the playful nature of hazing rituals does not make them immune to the law. As Nan explains, "Only if it stays within certain limits". People may feel offended during such an initiation period, but that alone is insufficient for criminal prosecution.  

Criminal law sets clear boundaries for hazing: "In severe cases, criminal law does not make exceptions. If you severely injure someone during the hazing period, violate their privacy, or force them to consume very unhealthy substances, it ceases to be a game. If a situation becomes life-threatening or results in death, there is a high likelihood of a prison sentence. In less severe incidents, community service may be considered."  

Agreements with universities  

Do universities take any steps to control hazing rituals? "When crossing boundaries, universities certainly distance themselves from it. Universities make agreements with the boards of student associations, and these associations are expected to adhere to those agreements. If it turns out that they don't, action is taken", Nan explains.  

For outsiders, it may be difficult to understand the purpose of hazing rituals within student associations, leading to why hazing is not banned when misconduct occurs regularly. According to Nan, it's easier said than done: "It is deeply ingrained in the university culture, so I do not see it being banned outright anytime soon. It would require a consistent pattern of problems. That is not to say that there are no issues that do not make it into the media."  

Disorderly conduct  

When hazing rituals or other student activities lead to criminal prosecution, the context of the alleged criminal behaviour often plays a central role. The Professor of Criminal (Procedural) Law mentions a well-known case at the Minerva student association in Leiden, known as the "Leestafel zooien" case: "The rule was: if the board table ends up on the street from the society, the board must resign. During a house reunion, some (former) members tried to move the table, which weighed hundreds of kilograms, outside. A board member tried to stop them, and it went wrong. The table fell on the board member, breaking his two wrists. This led to a criminal case, a case of assault. In such cases and in cases related to hazing, the judge considers to what extent something was meant as a joke in a student setting and to what extent people went too far." 

More information

Read the entire article of EenVandaag here (in Dutch).

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Criminal Law experts Joost Nan of Erasmus School of Law and Sven Bakker of the VU discuss the current criminal case on a fatal student hazing in Leuven.
Joost Nan en Sven Bakker

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