Students at Georgetown University Law Center were prevented from showing their support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and forbidden by the university from handing out campaign materials on campus.
On several occasions students were banned from partisan campaigning because the university claimed its tax-exempt status disallowed it.
In a letter to GULC Dean William M. Treanor sent Monday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote that “it was concerned by the threat to freedom of expression presented by the Georgetown University Law Center’s inhibition of student’s political speech on campus.”
The university, according to FIRE, has “erroneously” claimed the school’s tax-exempt status requires it to limit campaigning for candidates on campus.
“Every campaign season, FIRE sees colleges erroneously tell students that they can’t campaign for their candidate because it would threaten the school’s tax exemption,” FIRE senior program officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon said in a release.
“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,” Beck-Coon said.
The Washington Free Beacon reached out to Treanor for comment and received an email statement from the university’s communications director, which said Georgetown Law values political expression but limits use of the university to distribute campaign materials.
“Georgetown Law values political expression, and we do our best to encourage it while remaining true to our obligation as a nonprofit to neither support nor oppose political candidates,” said the email statement from Anne Cassidy, the interim executive director of communications of GULC.
“As such we place limits on the use of university resources to distribute campaign materials. We remain committed to the importance of political engagement in the lives of our students,” the statement read.
According to FIRE, GULC is not an isolated case.
“This happens fairly regularly,” said Ari Z. Cohn, an attorney at FIRE, in a phone interview. He added it occurs every election cycle.
Cohn said student’s speech has been determined to be “students’ speech and not the belief of the institution.” He added, “schools ought to know this already.”
There is “widespread misconceptions between student and university speech,” Cohn said. Tax-exempt status, he said, is “limited to institution speech.”
According to Cohn, the ban on partisan campaigning at many universities is “not recorded anywhere in polices, which makes it even more dangerous.”
FIRE is hoping that with the nomination season underway, GULC will revise its policies governing partisan political speech.
On several occasions at GULC, students were prohibited from displaying and distributing materials supporting Sanders. Law student Alexander Atkins last September was denied a table to distribute materials because it was “in support of a specific candidate.”
On the day of a Democratic primary debate, several students who were members of the Bernie Sanders Group sat at an outdoor table displaying Sanders literature and offering other students information about the primaries.
The students were asked by the GULC’s Office of Student Life to stop their activity as policy at the university prohibited campaign-related activities on campus.
Atkins emailed the coordinator of student organizations and was informed that Georgetown Law’s “Student Organization Policy on Partisan Political Activities” prohibited campaign activity, and that as a tax-exempt institution, Georgetown University does not allow campaigning and campaign activity on campus.
FIRE pointed out that Georgetown University promises its students the right to freedom of expression and speech. Its “Speech and Expression Policy” states that “all members of the Georgetown University academic community, which comprises students, faculty and administrators, enjoy the right to freedom of speech and expression.”
“In this country, political speech and expression has always been central to exercising freedom of speech,” said Tuthill Beck-Coon. “It’s hard to imagine a worse time to silence such speech than in the middle of an election season.”
FIRE’s publication of a Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus details the IRS code and explains that students and student groups are strongly presumed to speak for themselves, not their institutions.
FIRE offered to work with Georgetown Law to revise its policy on political activities in its letter to the dean, so that students may fully participate in this year’s election cycle.
“We’re hoping to hear back from Georgetown,” said Cohn, adding he hopes the administration “will take a hard look at their policies.”
While six to seven members of the Bernie Sanders group at GULC were affected by this latest incident, Cohn said the “policy interpretation” affects every student. “Every student is negatively impacted.”