On Monday, Feb. 1, the day of the Iowa Caucuses, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) penned a letter to Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor regarding an alleged incident last semester where students were prevented from distributing materials advocating for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. FIRE’s press release and the letter are available here.
The letter reads, “Specifically, administrators have prevented Georgetown Law students supporting the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders from engaging in political speech and activity on several occasions, on the grounds that the university’s tax-exempt status obligates it to ban campaign-related activities on campus and prevent any university resources from being used to support political campaign activity.”
As alleged by the letter, one student’s request to reserve a table outside the McDonough Hall Chapel to distribute Sanders campaign materials in September was denied. In October, several students used a table outside of McDonough Hall to distribute similar materials, until they were asked to leave by personnel from the Office of Student Life.
In support of its actions, the administration cited its Student Organization Policy on Partisan Political Activity, available here. The policy states that “Student organizations generally may not use University resources to engage in partisan political campaign activities … and must obtain advance approval from the Office of student Life (and the Office of Federal Relations) for any such activities that occur on University premises.”
According to FIRE, the University’s obligations as a 501(c)(3) organization would not be affected by allowing for students to campaign, as individual and institutional political activity are separate. FIRE cites case law and its own history of advocacy on similar issues in support of its position. FIRE’s statement reads “‘Every campaign season, FIRE sees private colleges erroneously tell students that they can’t campaign for their candidate because it would threaten the school’s tax exemption,’ said FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. ‘That’s just not correct. As the IRS has made clear, and as FIRE has emphasized repeatedly throughout the years, nonprofit restrictions on political campaigning apply to the institution itself, not to students or student groups.'”
When reached for comment, Anne Cassidy, Georgetown Law Acting Executive Director of Communications, sent the following statement.
Georgetown Law values political expression, and is committed to encouraging it while remaining true to our obligation as a nonprofit to remain politically neutral. As such we place limits on the use of university resources to distribute campaign materials. The Law Center is currently working on new ways to protect our students’ right to advocate for the political candidates of their choice, while still remaining within the bounds that our 501(c)(3) status imposes. We will announce these guidelines in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, we remain committed to the importance of political engagement in the lives of our students.