Trinity Progressives (T-Prog), the group responsible for bringing Bernie Sanders to campus last March, was almost at it again.
“This summer, we were in negotiations to get a currently-running congressperson here to speak — someone who is currently in congress, running for Senate — to come and speak at an event and host a town hall,” said Emily Bourgeois, president of T-Prog.
T-Prog went to the Event Review Committee (ERC), which consists of representatives from departments such as risk management, student involvement and TUPD who are responsible for assessing the risk of proposed events.
The ERC presented T-Prog with a memorandum from the American Council on Education (ACE) which details guidelines for institutions of higher education regarding political campaign-related activities in order to help preserve the given institution’s nonprofit status. T-Prog was told that their speaker could only come to campus if the event did not contain any campaigning or fundraising.
“We brought the guidelines to our contact with the campaign, and the campaign was basically just like ‘this is not doable for us.’ At that point, it wasn’t even going to be a campaign event, it was just going to be a speaking engagement, and we were 90 days out from the election and that’s a waste of time. It’s not worth it to bring someone here who is actively campaigning to host a town hall who cannot speak on the behalf of themselves,” Bourgeois said.
Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, tax-exempt nonprofits — such as Trinity — are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of a candidate for elected public office. This includes making direct donations to campaigns or holding partisan events at the nonprofit’s facilities, such as a fundraiser or a rally.
“So, 501(c)(3)’s just have certain requirements, and in this arena basically, 501(c)(3)’s, in terms of retaining it’s exempt status, they’re required to basically be bipartisan, be neutral in the political arena,” said Tessie Skulski, University controller in the business office. “It’s not to say that you can’t have political activities. That’s certainly part of our educational nature. You’re always going to have some political education, but you have to be bipartisan.”
However, while the institution must remain nonpartisan, student organizations are not subject to this regulation. Much of the ACE memorandum encourages creating a clear distinction between the activities of the institution itself and student organizations.
“Student [organizations] can definitely engage in partisan activities. It would not be of the institution to do so, right, and so that’s why it’s really important as we advise and engage with student [organizations] on these issues, that we make it as clear as possible what is Trinity sponsored and endorsed versus what is student [organization] sponsored and endorsed,” said Jamie Thompson, director of student involvement.
Events involving high-profile candidates, campaigning or fundraising — such as the one T-Prog proposed last summer — are “high risk” for Trinity, as they could be incorrectly construed as institution-sponsored.
“If there’s political fundraising involved, that’s typically not permitted through these guidelines,” Thompson said. “A lot of it has to do with making it clear and distinct that it’s the student organization hosting and not the institution, but depending on the event and the specific things that the organization wants to do, those factors can vary widely,” Thompson said. “The events that pose the least risk pertaining to political activities are going to be those that are topic or issue specific, that don’t include fundraising, that are about topics and issues and not about ‘Vote for me.’ I think it’s pretty hard to separate those things, but generally those are going to involve the least amount of risk.”
Trinity’s nonprofit status allows the university to be tax-exempt on income from activities related to Trinity’s educational purpose, charitable contributions and investment income. The 501(c)(3) status also allows Trinity students to receive federal financial aid. Diana Heeren, associate Vice President for finance, stressed the importance of Trinity retaining it’s 501(c)(3) status.
“[Without 501(c)(3) status], probably, we would cease to exist. We could not exist without that exemption,” Heeren said.
According to Thompson, Trinity is still reviewing how best to apply the ACE guidelines.
“It’s a continued work in review for the institution. We’re always trying to provide better guidelines for all campus-users,” Thompson said. “We’re always wanting to look at and make sure that the guidance we’re providing to the Trinity community is clear and matches expectations not only from the IRS but also what we value as an institution as well, that those things align.”
Bourgeois noted that the current policies that Trinity is adhering to are restrictive.
“My officers and I would love to bring in people who are running for congress or senate because we have those connections and can bring in those people and that would be a really cool, visible thing for us to do on campus. But, feasibly, we won’t be able to do that until the school figures out what they want to do with the guidelines. So right now we are in this weird limbo state where we have this super restrictive document, and because we have the document we can’t do anything contrary to the document, because we know what we can and cannot do,” Bourgeois said.
Bourgeois also expressed that she feels the student voice is currently limited.
“As an explicitly political student organization, it’s our responsibility to raise political questions on campus and to have conversations about them and to address what’s going on at any given time, and if we aren’t given the opportunity to organize quickly and to organize in a way that is authentic to us as an organization, it really dulls the conversation and it deters us from hosting events if there are a million different hoops that we have to jump through,” Bourgeois said.
The ACE Memorandum and the Student Organization Handbook, which provides more details into the guidelines for student organizations, can be found online on Trinity’s website.