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As the 2016 Election Cycle Rages On, FIRE Reminds Colleges that Political Speech Is Free Speech

March 16, 2016

PHILADELPHIA, March 16, 2016—At too many colleges and universities nationwide, election season results in the censorship of political activity and speech on campus. To ensure that students and faculty are free to speak their minds in support of their preferred candidates, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is proud to release an updated and expanded Policy Statement on Political Speech on Campus. FIRE’s Statement provides an overview of the political speech rights of students and faculty at both public and private colleges nationwide.

With the 2016 presidential primaries well underway, FIRE has already written to American University and Georgetown University Law Center after both universities prevented students from campaigning on campus for their chosen candidates—Senator Rand Paul at American University and Senator Bernie Sanders at Georgetown Law. Each university incorrectly claimed their tax-exempt status required them to restrict the students’ political speech.

Concerned by these incidents, the Subcommittee on Oversight of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing on “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses” earlier this month. The Subcommittee is now collecting stories of campus censorship through the Committee’s website and email.

FIRE’s Statement details the freedom of political expression that students, student groups, faculty, and staff at public and private universities should demand at their institutions. While universities and colleges that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from participating in political campaigns as institutions, these prohibitions apply to the institution itself and those reasonably perceived to be speaking on its behalf, not to individual students, student groups, faculty, or staff engaged in their own expression.

“Every election season, students nationwide face censorship for daring to talk politics or support a candidate. It’s like clockwork,” said FIRE Vice President of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley. “University administrators continue to misinterpret the requirements of their institution’s tax-exempt status to silence political speech. So FIRE’s policy statement aims to correct the record once again: political speech is free speech, and students and faculty must be allowed to express themselves politically on campus.”

Next month, FIRE will amplify this message for students attending a special FIRE Regional Workshop: Election 2016—Campaigning on Campus at Yale University on April 9. FIRE hopes students will leave the conference armed with a clear understanding of their political speech rights.

FIRE is a nonpartisan, 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.

CONTACT:

Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; katie@thefire.org

Schools: Georgetown University American University