Lindenwood University confirms its student groups will now be allowed to endorse candidates for public office. FIRE alerted the school last month that administrators were misapplying their Political Nonpartisanship Policy to students, in violation of their right to express political views.
As we previously reported, LU Director of Student Involvement Carynn Smith told student Cullen Dittmar on Nov. 8 that his proposed College Republicans chapter could not include in its constitution a statement that the group will endorse political candidates, citing the Political Nonpartisanship Policy.
FIRE stepped in to help at Dittmar’s request. As we explained to LU, the policy in no way prohibits students from endorsing political candidates. It only bans institutional endorsements:
[T]he University practices political nonpartisanship. This means that no University office, organization, subdivision, student, or employee may use University resources, advertising channels, or work time to promote, assist, or express support for any particular candidate(s) pursuing election or appointment to a political office.
Smith’s assertion that student organizations can’t endorse candidates for office is likely a misinterpretation of the university’s status as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, which does prohibit the institution itself — not students — from expressing political views. (This is a mistake we see with some frequency. To learn more, read FIRE’s FAQ for Political Speech on Campus.)
In addition to pointing out that this otherwise acceptable policy was being misapplied, we also noted that it appeared to be selectively enforced against the College Republicans. LU’s College Democrats chapter endorsed a congressional candidate in 2018 without issue.
LU’s initial response to our letter did not address our present concerns. Although the university purported to respond to this letter and a previous FIRE letter, it instead only addressed those concerns in the first letter, which criticized the university for allowing its student government to deny recognition to a proposed Turning Point USA chapter to avoid a potential outcry of opposition to the group. LU supported its student government, saying the student government’s review process was followed. (As we pointed out in that Nov. 4 letter, the student government violated the university’s freedom of expression policies in denying the group recognition.) FIRE pushed LU to affirmatively state that student groups may support political candidates. And on Dec. 5, LU did just that, writing that the university is “pleased to clarify that student organizations are not prohibited from expressing support for certain political candidates.”
The university’s clarification that students may support candidates is a clear victory for all LU students, who now know they will not face repercussions for engaging in core political speech — or for stating in their student organization constitutions an intent to do so.
We urge LU to take this pro-free expression stance in all of its practices, including in recognizing student groups.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).