Georgetown University Law Center’s prohibition of students campaigning for the upcoming presidential election came under congressional scrutiny at a Subcommittee on Oversight hearing of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee entitled “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses” on March 3.
The GULC cites its tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code, which precludes nonprofit organizations from supporting political candidates, as grounds for its prohibition of student participation in campaigns.
GULC student Alexander Atkins (LAW ’17), who has spearheaded efforts in the past six months to revise the policy, testified before the subcommittee, which isthe chief tax-writing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Atkins has challenged the policy since he and other law students comprising an informal grassroots group supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were prevented from tabling outside Georgetown Law’s McDonough Hall in September and distributing campaign materials altogether in October.
Atkins received support in his efforts from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting individual rights at American universities. FIRE issued an open letter in February to GULC Dean William Treanor urging the university to lift its restrictions on student expression.
Following FIRE’s letter, the center announced its intention to revise its policies and has allowed Atkins to provide feedback on draft revisions, but still prohibits candidate advocacy on campus.
Georgetown Law’s acting Executive Director of Communications Anne Cassidy said the center has committed to implementing changes in its policies.
“We’ve been revising our tabling procedures and expect they’ll be updated soon,” Cassidy wrote in an email to The Hoya.
GULC also issued a statement written by the university’s Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Scott Fleming to the subcommittee stating that an internal review of the policy is being conducted.
“We are adjusting the policies to make very clear that individuals as well as groups are able to reserve tables for organized activity and that all members of our community are able to make reasonable use of University resources to express their political opinions,” Fleming wrote.
Atkins, who was invited to testify alongside FIRE’s Associate Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko and experts in the fields of free speech and tax law, said the hearing represented significant progress for political engagement on campuses.
“For many members, especially those who attended college in the sixties and seventies, the idea that America’s campuses would be anything other than hot beds of free expression and political thought came as a counterintuitive shock,” Atkins wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I think my testimony helped to paint a startling picture of the way that previous generations’ understanding of the culture of college campuses differs dramatically from present reality.”
In her testimony, Sevcenko stressed FIRE’s stance that cultivating political expression on college campuses requires cooperation across party lines.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” Sevcenko said. “Georgetown prevents students from campaigning for Bernie Sanders, but about the same time American University prevented students from campaigning for Rand Paul. As long as the IRS guidelines remain unclear, censorship will win out every time.”
The hearing revealed a rift between Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) mentioned recent speakers invited to speak on Georgetown’s campus, including Sanders and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, to demonstrate the university’s politicized climate.
“What we’re seeing today in this subcommittee, in my opinion, is really searching for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Crowley said. “Georgetown University isn’t bound to the First Amendment, but they are on their own initiative devising a policy that ensures full inclusivity for all of their students.”
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) characterized the situation as indicative of a culture of excessive political correctness, stating that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment applies to every American university.
“I don’t care what kind of college it is, private or public,” Kelly said. “I think it’s absolutely chilling that we have to have this kind of hearing to expose what’s going on.”
University of Miami law professor Frances Hill, who was summoned to testify because of her expertise in tax law, argued that legal precedents have existed since 1972 that indicate that student campaigning does not jeopardize a university’s tax-exempt status, as GULC claims.
“On the tax side, it’s a well-settled issue, it’s not one of the hard ones in tax law,” Hill said. “One just has to assume that university officials were misinformed or improperly briefed on tax law, and that’s where the solution has to lie.”
FIRE’s Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon said that although she commends the GULC for reviewing its policy, it should immediately suspend its ban as it makes its decision.
“These students are rapidly losing their window of opportunity to weigh in the primaries,” Beck-Coon said in an interview with The Hoya. “They definitely should be allowed to engage in speech on some kind of interim basis while they’re revising their policy.”
Atkins highlighted his satisfaction that the subcommittee called a hearing focused on the issue of free speech and political activity on university campuses.
“Challenging authority is never comfortable or easy,” Atkins wrote. “It was very rewarding to finally have a captive audience – let alone Congress – that was interested in hearing about our experience.”