An Update on St. Catherine

By October 23, 2008

Yesterday, I reported on a troubling situation at the College of St. Catherine. Today, we have an update.

Based on several news reports published yesterday, it appeared that St. Catherine had decided to bar all political events on campus in advance of the coming election. When asked for comment, administrators cited the college’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit status as justification. According to reports, the cancelled events included appearances by Senator Hillary Clinton and Al Franken, the Minnesota Democratic nominee for Senate, as well as a planned speech by conservative activist Bay Buchanan, which was to be sponsored by the campus Republican group. I reported on this purported ban on all political events on campus, pointing out that while St. Catherine was well within its rights to cancel the events, it was not compelled to do so under 501(c)(3) regulations and that doing so was a disservice to the education of St. Catherine’s students.

As promised, I sent a copy of the blog along with our 2008 Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus to St. Catherine.

Late yesterday, I received a response from Julie Michener, Media Relations Manager for the college. She directed me to a letter written by the college president in response to the negative press the college had been receiving as a result of its decision. Michener suggested that the controversy had been overstated by the press reports.

The letter claims that, contrary to published reports, none of the interested parties had actually been invited by the college or by students, but had merely expressed interest in coming. The college declined each opportunity in an apparent effort to, as President Andrea J. Lee wrote, "insure St. Catherine’s ‘neutrality’ throughout the election process while encouraging strong and active campus engagement."

But while Lee’s letter argues that some of the earlier media accounts weren’t quite accurate, FIRE’s overall point remains the same.

While colleges like St. Catherine must, of course, pay attention to IRS regulations when it comes to hosting political speakers on campus, St. Catherine’s blanket ban on partisan speakers is far more cautious than the law demands. We think the school’s enforcement of a blanket ban is overly cautious risk management that redounds to the detriment of their students.

FIRE supports the freedom of association of private colleges and universities to host (or not host) whomever they would like as an institution. But too often, colleges rely on an incorrect or overly cautious understanding of the law as a justification for a general clampdown on campus political activity. FIRE’s consistent message has been that in their efforts to abide by state and federal law, private university administrators must not let their angst eclipse their responsibility to allow students to be exposed to an array of perspectives and opinions. During this exciting political season, students at our nation’s private colleges should be exposed to more political dialogue, rather than less.