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Georgetown Law's New Political Activity Policy: A Good Start, But Far From Finished

At the start of the school year, when classmates and I decided to promote Bernie Sanders for President at Georgetown University Law Center, we assumed that our biggest challenge would be convincing our peers of the merits of Sanders’s campaign. Instead, our primary obstacle has been convincing Georgetown that we should be permitted to engage in this type of political discourse at all.

Over six months ago, our group was denied a reservation for a table on campus to engage in campaign-related outreach. I quickly learned that, with the exception of wearing a campaign pin or placing a sticker on your laptop, Georgetown’s “Student Organization Policy on Partisan Political Activities” prohibited students from engaging in any on-campus campaign activity. The Law Center claimed its hands were tied—that allowing our group to use space on campus to support a candidate would jeopardize the university’s federal tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits tax-exempt institutions from becoming involved in political campaigns.

For months, I sought further explanation for this restrictive policy and researched the legitimacy of Georgetown’s tax concerns. After our group’s efforts to reach a mutually acceptable arrangement with the university went unanswered, we accepted an offer from FIRE to write a letter to the Law Center on our behalf. FIRE’s letter—and the media attention it created—got Georgetown’s attention and even captured the interest of Congress.

On March 2, I was honored to testify about my experience before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee in a hearing titled “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses.” Following my testimony and that of FIRE’s Director of Litigation, Catherine Sevcenko, Frances Hill, a tax professor from the University of Miami Law School, explained to the Subcommittee that Section 501(c)(3)’s political campaign prohibitions only apply to the institution itself and those speaking on the institution’s behalf.  

So could the intended activities of a group like ours actually jeopardize Georgetown’s tax exemption? Professor Hill concluded her testimony by answering this question unmistakably in the negative: “Students can do almost anything.” In written materials Georgetown submitted to the Subcommittee, the university pledged to revise its policies in order to better accommodate the political expression interests of its students.

On March 24, the Law Center released its revised policies. Although an undeniably positive step, the revisions are a far cry from readily accommodating the needs of our group, let alone allowing us to “do almost anything.”

The new policies specifically allow for only one type of expression. Students are now permitted to reserve a table to engage in campaign outreach for up to eight hours a week, so our group has started tabling on a weekly basis. We’re thrilled to have a venue for our expression, and our colleagues have voiced excitement that Georgetown Law has made room for partisan political activity on campus.

But how much room for political activity is there? The updated policies are still very restrictive and leave many questions unanswered. Despite allowing for tabling, the new “Policy on Partisan Political Activities and Lobbying” states that students “generally may not use University-supported resources, including Georgetown’s phone system, email lists, computer networks or servers, or postal service, for partisan political campaign activity.”

So is a group like ours permitted to use basic campus resources such as classrooms, bulletin boards, or even a Wi-Fi connection? If I’m connected to campus Wi-Fi (as most of us are, most of the time) and send an email to other members of our group to coordinate our tabling schedule, have I violated the Policy? It certainly looks that way, which is silly.

When it comes to any activities other than tabling, the new Policy requires students to obtain specific approval at least a week in advance. This provides students with no guidance on what other activities are permitted and leaves the administration with unlimited discretion. Furthermore, our experience thus far indicates that such approval may not be granted in practice.

The day the new policies were released, our group requested to reserve a classroom and advertise an event. Georgetown denied our requests, citing a longstanding practice—though not an official policy—of only approving such resources for recognized student groups. We were encouraged to seek partnership with such a group or begin the process of gaining recognition ourselves.

Despite months of effort, our group’s prospects of fully engaging in campaign activity on campus before the primaries are over are not looking promising. Yes, a week ago our group couldn’t even reserve a table on campus, and now we can. But still, it’s reasonable to feel a little discouraged—despite all our efforts and even a Congressional hearing, not much has changed.

Georgetown continues to suggest that the onerous limits imposed on the activities of its students are mandated by the Internal Revenue Code. Despite asserting that the Law Center “encourages and supports the free exchange of ideas and political viewpoints,” the revised Policy continues to justify its restrictions by explaining that, “as a non-profit . . . regulated in part by Section 501(c)(3),” the Law Center “must place limits on the use of University resources in support of” partisan political campaign activity. The Policy offers no additional explanation, despite the fact that other schools in the same legal position provide far more freedom to their students.

Earning the right to engage in political expression on campus has been a slow, uphill battle, but it’s worth the effort. Georgetown Law needs to understand that it still has urgent work to do, and students at other schools dealing with similar restrictions need to stand up for their rights as well. The time to make a difference this primary season is running out.

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