WASHINGTON, February 1, 2016—As the presidential nomination season officially kicks off today in Iowa, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is asking one school in the nation’s capital to act quickly to revisit policies that restrict students from engaging in political speech on behalf of their chosen candidates.
Today, FIRE wrote to Georgetown University Law Center asking it to revise its policy governing partisan political speech. The school has prevented a group of students supporting Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders from handing out campaign materials on campus, incorrectly claiming that the school’s tax-exempt status requires this limitation.
“Every campaign season, FIRE sees private colleges erroneously tell students that they can’t campaign for their candidate because it would threaten the school’s tax exemption,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “That’s just not correct. As the IRS has made clear, and as FIRE has emphasized repeatedly throughout the years, nonprofit restrictions on political campaigning apply to the institution itself, not to students or student groups.”
In September 2015, law student Alexander Atkins requested a table reservation in Georgetown Law’s McDonough Hall so he and his group could display and distribute materials supportive of Sanders, as well as inform other students about voting in the upcoming primaries. Georgetown Law’s Office of Student Life (OSL) denied the request because it was “in support of a specific candidate.” The following month, on the day of a Democratic primary debate, several students sat at an outdoor table on campus displaying Sanders posters, distributing campaign literature, and offering information about the primaries. The students were asked by OSL representatives to stop their activity, as Georgetown Law policy prohibited campaign-related activities on campus.
After these two incidents, Atkins reached out to the coordinator of student organizations via email and was informed that Georgetown Law’s “Student Organization Policy on Partisan Political Activities” prohibited campaign activity, and that as a tax-exempt institution, Georgetown University does not allow campaigning and campaign activity on campus.
Georgetown University promises its students the right to freedom of expression and speech. Its “Speech and Expression Policy” states that “all members of the Georgetown University academic community, which comprises students, faculty and administrators, enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression.” The law school’s policy on partisan political activity conflicts with this promise by unnecessarily eliminating an enormous swath of political speech, banning students from even handing out campaign leaflets in outside areas of campus.
“In this country, political speech and expression has always been central to exercising freedom of speech,” said Tuthill Beck-Coon. “It’s hard to imagine a worse time to silence such speech than in the middle of an election season.”
Because censorship of student and faculty political speech is such a frequent occurrence, especially in presidential election years, FIRE has published a Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus. The statement details why, with respect to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, students and student groups are strongly presumed to speak for themselves, not their institutions.
In its letter, FIRE offered to work with Georgetown Law to revise its policy on political activities so that students may fully participate in this year’s election cycle.
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.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org