The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling for the Georgetown University Law Center to revise its policy governing partisan political speech after a group of students were prevented from handing out campaign materials. The school (incorrectly, according to FIRE) claims that the school’s tax-exempt status requires campaigning to be stifled.
“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,” FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon said in a statement. “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.”
The complaint stems from an incident in September 2015, when Alexander Atkins, a student, requested a table reservation in Georgetown Law’s McDonough Hall so he and his group could display and distribute materials supportive of Sanders. His request was reportedly denied due to it being “in support of a specific candidate.”
A month later, on the same day as a Democratic primary debate, another group of students who had set up campaign materials on an outdoor table was shut down.
Following the second incident, Atkins began contacting student organizations to complain, but was told 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.”
The organization asserts that, according to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, students and student groups are strongly presumed to speak for themselves, not their institutions.
“In this country, political speech and expression has always been central to exercising freedom of speech,” said Beck-Coon. “It’s hard to imagine a worse time to silence such speech than in the middle of an election season.”