Former FIRE Legal Intern Alex Atkins, left, and fellow Georgetown University Law Center students Claire Chevrier, Matt Blair, and Dom Gallucci finally held an officially-sanctioned tabling event during Bernie Sanders' campaign earlier this year.
On Monday, Georgetown Law Students for Democratic Reform (GLSDR) were told by campus administrators that they could not hold a phone bank supporting New York Democratic congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout on campus because doing so would violate Georgetown University Law Center’s newly-revised “Student Organizations Policy on Partisan and Political Activities.” What’s more, this ban came despite GLSDR having already secured official permission to hold their event. The prohibition, and apparent confusion on the part of Georgetown Law’s own administration, illustrates the numerous problems FIRE anticipated with the revised policy when it was released earlier this year: It still burdens a broad swath of political speech on campus.
This latest instance marks the third occasion in which GLSDR, which includes former FIRE legal intern Alex Atkins, have been prevented from advocating on behalf of their preferred political candidate under some iteration of Georgetown Law’s rules governing political speech.
As Atkins wrote for FIRE earlier this year, his unfortunate saga began in the fall of 2015 when he and some Georgetown Law classmates decided to promote the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Atkins anticipated the challenges that inevitably come with engaging colleagues in political discourse in the midst of a heated campaign cycle. What he didn’t expect was that his primary obstacle would be convincing Georgetown Law that he be permitted to do so.
Atkins quickly learned that, with the exception of wearing a campaign pin or displaying a sticker on his laptop, Georgetown Law’s Student Organizations Policy on Partisan Political Activities effectively prevented students from engaging in any on-campus campaign activity. As a result, Atkins and his group’s simple hope of reserving a table to engage in political outreach to their fellow students was out of the question.
The policy was put in place in a misguided attempt to protect the university’s 501(c)(3) status and, with it, its federal tax exemption. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits tax-exempt institutions from becoming involved in political campaigns, but as FIRE has repeatedly pointed out, those political campaign prohibitions only apply to the institution itself and those speaking on the institution’s behalf. Students are not presumed to speak on behalf of their college or university.
This was made abundantly clear to all parties on March 2 when Atkins testified alongside FIRE’s Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee in a congressional hearing about freedom of expression on campus.
At the hearing, which was was prompted by FIRE’s press release about Georgetown Law’s political speech ban and the significant media attention it garnered, University of Miami School of Law Professor Frances R. Hill addressed the issue succinctly: “The IRS has made it abundantly clear that only in the rarest of circumstances would a student be considered the agent of the university,” such that her speech would be attributed to the institution.
“Students can do almost anything,” Hill concluded.
But Georgetown’s subsequent promise to reaffirm its commitment to free speech and pledge to revise its policies in order to better accommodate student political expression is ringing hollow. The revised rules continue to place significant limits on partisan political activities. As Atkins explained after they were released in March, the current policy allows students to engage in tabling but leaves unclear what other political activities and school resources are available to them. And rather than providing for reasonable use of university resources, the policy states that community members “generally may not use university-supported resources” for partisan campaign activity. Finally, Georgetown Law also requires students wishing to engage in political activity to submit a request to the administration for approval at least one week prior to the event—a standard that does not apply to other forms of student advocacy at the school.
But even when students follow these restrictive rules, they encounter problems.
On the very day that Georgetown Law’s new political speech policy was released, Atkins’ group’s request to reserve a classroom and advertise an event was denied. Administrators cited a long-standing, though unofficial, practice of only approving such resources for recognized student groups.
Then on Monday, in what Atkins told The Washington Post was a “truly ironic and absurd” twist, the group, while being denied the use of the classroom that they reserved, was at least allowed to reserve a table for their event.
Georgetown Law’s Dean of Students Mitchell Bailin defended the school’s policy and noted that in this case, the staff member had “incorrectly advised” Atkins and his group. Bailin clarified that Georgetown Law’s policy does allow classroom space to be used for partisan political activities with one week’s notice and approval by the Office of Student Life. Still, Bailin maintained that the request was appropriately denied because it failed to meet the “one week notice requirement.”
But Atkins insists that he did follow the rules. He says Bailin’s statements to The Washington Post are factually inaccurate—and Atkins has provided FIRE with documentation that appears to prove it.
“[Bailin] claims that we did not follow the policy’s requirement of requesting use of a classroom a week in advance,” Atkins told FIRE. “But I submitted the request to use a classroom to phone bank on October 27, 10 days prior to the event. That request was approved on November 2, and our flyers to advertise the event were approved on November 4.”
However, the above confusion, even if a mistake, demonstrates precisely the policy problems that FIRE flagged back in April. And after a congressional hearing, a letter from FIRE, and its own promises to improve its policies on students’ political speech, Georgetown Law should know better.
The school’s new policy remains a source of substantial confusion to students and will inevitably create future problems for political speech at Georgetown Law.