ST. LOUIS, April 9, 2014—Last fall, Saint Louis University (SLU) demanded a student group take an event featuring former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown off campus. SLU justified its wrongful decision to prevent Brown from appearing on campus out of misguided concerns for its tax-exempt status. With the 2014 midterm elections on the horizon, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) calls on SLU to once and for all stop using this excuse to suppress political speech on campus.
“For far too long, colleges and universities have used flimsy tax-exemption concerns to censor political dialogue on campus, even when it’s clear that such expression poses no threat to the institution whatsoever,” said Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program. “With the 2014 election season on the way, the time is now for SLU and universities nationwide to stop obstructing political debate and discussion.”
The SLU College Republicans sought to bring Senator Brown to campus for a speaking event in October 2013. However, SLU administrators informed the group that because SLU considered Brown a potential candidate for public office, his speech could not take place on campus. An SLU spokesperson later stated, “Since Scott Brown has made comments about possibly running for office … the IRS would consider him as a candidate—thus it being in conflict with our tax-exempt status.”
FIRE wrote to SLU on November 13, correcting its mistaken belief that obligations under federal law prohibited it from allowing Brown to speak on campus. As IRS-published training materials and FIRE’s Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus make clear, student organizations—which are reasonably understood to speak only for themselves, and not for their institutions—are free to hold partisan political events on campus, including those involving candidates or potential candidates for office, without threatening a university’s tax-exempt status.
FIRE wrote to SLU again on January 23, 2014, after the university defended its actions, noting the positive examples set by other universities compared to SLU. For instance, Washington University in St. Louis, a nearby major private institution, recognizes in its policies that “student groups … may use University facilities for events involving government officials and candidates.” FIRE also showed that student groups at colleges around the country have successfully hosted political candidates on campus without interference from their universities or consequences for the tax-exempt status of those institutions. Such speakers include former U.S. Congressman Joe Sestak, 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, and now-Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“It’s time for SLU and other colleges to stop misapplying IRS regulations to impoverish students’ educations and their chances to hear and debate the meaningful issues of the day,” said FIRE’s Majeed.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Azhar Majeed, Director, Individual Rights Education Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
William R. Kauffman, Interim President, Saint Louis University: 314-977-2506; email@example.com