With exactly a week until Election Day, students should feel particularly empowered to campaign on campus. However, at schools across the country, students are told over and over again that they are not allowed to campaign on campus because doing so would compromise their university’s nonprofit status.
FIRE has reported on numerous cases in recent years: In February, Georgetown University Law Center administrators prevented students campaigning for Bernie Sanders from handing out campaign materials. Last year, American University refused official recognition of a Students for Rand group. And in 2014, members of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Montclair State University were told they could not share their opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But these directives are incorrect and infringe on students’ fundamental right to speak about important political issues ahead of crucial elections.
I know this spiel pretty well, because it’s exactly what I was told when I was in college.
In the fall of 2010—the beginning of my sophomore year at La Salle University—I returned to campus leading the university’s College Democrats chapter. I was itching to canvass, organize phone banks, and campaign my heart out for the midterm election. Soon after I arrived on campus, I met with a professor and shared all of the plans that I had for the semester. My professor listened intently, and then told me that partisan political activities aren’t allowed on campus—that what I’d planned on doing would be putting the university at risk of losing its tax-exempt status.
Of course, as a student who didn’t know better—and who knew that compromising the school’s nonprofit status would be a huge problem—I took the directive and switched my focus. I steered the ship toward student voter registration instead of campaigning for issues important to me. My peers and I packed up our tables when all voter registration deadlines passed in mid-October and started planning an election night watch party. Feeling pretty powerless, I crossed my fingers and hoped election results would turn out for the best.
I wish I had known then what I know now.
Student political activity shouldn’t be and isn’t limited to registering students to vote. The law is clear: As a nonprofit institution, the college itself can’t endorse a candidate. But students are presumed not to be speaking on behalf of the school. This means that students can campaign on campus without jeopardizing their school’s nonprofit status. FIRE has set the record straight in our Policy Statement on Political Speech on Campus. Looking back, I wish I would have known that FIRE could have helped protect my right to campaign on campus.
Here’s the thing about censorship: It doesn’t have to come from a place of malice. Oftentimes it comes in the form of misinformation that trickles down from an authority figure to students—which is exactly what happened in my case.
For the next seven days, students should campaign with confidence because it is their right. And, if they encounter any resistance, FIRE has their backs. Any students or student groups that have been told they can’t support a candidate should let FIRE know immediately.