Creighton University has placed its Turning Point USA chapter on probation based on an investigation after the group changed the details and name of a planned event. The university wrongly claims the changes endangered Creighton’s tax-exempt status.
As we previously reported, the TPUSA student chapter changed the name of an April 9 event from “Introduction to Nebraska Political Conference” to “Take Back Nebraska Summit ‘22” and invited conservative activist Jack Posobiec to speak at an off-campus continuation of the event hosted by the Nebraska Freedom Coalition. In response, the university unilaterally canceled the event the day before it was set to take place, citing the university’s tax-exempt status, which it incorrectly claimed the event could endanger if it proceeded as planned.
FIRE wrote Creighton on April 13, explaining that TPUSA’s proposed event would not have implicated the school’s tax-exempt status, as the speech would have occurred on behalf of TPUSA, not Creighton, and could not be reasonably assumed to represent the university’s views. We also explained that Creighton’s strong promises of free expression — which the university is contractually bound to uphold — prohibit it from canceling student organizations’ events based on their content.
Further policy violations could lead to suspension or removal of the group.
FIRE later learned that Creighton not only canceled the event the day before it was to take place, it also immediately suspended the TPUSA chapter and launched an investigation alleging the group violated the university’s standards of conduct, in part for engaging in “Conduct Unbecoming of a Creighton Student.”
FIRE wrote Creighton again on May 4 reiterating that student expression does not endanger the university’s tax-exempt status and that expression cannot be shut down solely because it is political in nature. We told Creighton it must end its investigation of TPUSA without sanctioning the group.
As we wrote:
Creighton misunderstands its obligations as a 501(c)(3) organization, which merely prohibit the university itself from participating or intervening in a political campaign. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) training materials and rulings draw a clear distinction between “the individual political campaign activities of students” and their universities, stating plainly that “actions of students generally are not attributed to an educational institution unless they are undertaken at the direction of and with authorization from” university officials. “In order to constitute participation or intervention in a political campaign . . . the political activity must be that of the college or university and not the individual activity of its faculty, staff or students.” These obligations do not require Creighton to violate its laudable free speech promises to students and faculty and to instead censor them when they personally engage in political speech on campus.
Creighton did not answer either of FIRE’s letters. Nevertheless, on May 11 the university lifted TPUSA’s interim suspension but placed the group on “behavioral probation” until the end of the upcoming fall semester. Creighton found TPUSA not responsible for engaging in “Conduct Unbecoming of a Creighton Student,” intentionally providing the university false information, or knowingly allowing policy violations to occur.
However, Creighton did find the group responsible for violating the university’s “Freedom of Expression and Active Dialogue” policy because it didn’t inform the university of changes to the event before implementing them. Now on behavioral probation, the TPUSA chapter is required by Creighton to develop policies on working with outside organizations. Further policy violations could lead to suspension or removal of the group.
Although this punishment is milder than what TPUSA could have faced from the investigation — possible sanctions included suspension and expulsion — Creighton has violated its strong commitment to protect the expressive rights of students.
Invoking the tax code this way cannot stand, and FIRE will continue to fight back against this improper leveraging university obligations.
Private institutions like Creighton, which are not bound by the First Amendment but make contractually binding commitments that students enjoy expressive rights on campus, cannot turn around and violate those commitments when they — or individuals on campus — disagree with the viewpoint expressed. Additionally, once these institutions promise to uphold expressive rights, they cannot use the university’s obligation to not engage in political activity as an excuse to censor students’ political expression.
This is the same ol’ situation for FIRE. Almost every year, we see universities incorrectly invoke their status as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization to justify shutting down students’ core political speech. Indeed, it is so common that FIRE published a policy statement and frequently asked questions about the issue. Invoking the tax code this way cannot stand, and FIRE will continue to fight back against this improper leveraging university obligations.
Although Creighton eventually cleared the students of the charges that implicated their expressive activity, it violated student rights at each step — canceling a student-run event and investigating the students for their expression — in clear contravention of the university’s binding promises. Although we’re glad TPUSA is facing a less severe sanction than predicted, probation is not nothing, and Creighton deserves criticism, not commendation.