Many in the Trinity community have questioned the future of partisan political activity on campus over the last few weeks as the university worked to establish clear guidelines concerning political events held by student organizations.
The university released a two-page document to student leaders on Oct. 3 that provided guidelines for political activity events by student organizations. After barring all University-Sponsored Organizations (USOs) from participating in partisan political activity, the document outlines rules for Registered Student Organizations (RSOs). Previously, the university had referred organizations to a memorandum from American Council on Education (ACE), which outlines guidelines that institutions themselves can follow to protect their 501(c)(3) — or nonpartisan and nonprofit — status.
“We were in need of some guidance for student groups. The ACE memo was designed for institutions, right? And we needed something that would help guide student organizations,” said Jamie Thompson, director of Student Involvement. “Simply put, [some] student organizations … have a real interest in engaging in partisan political activity, and we didn’t have any great guidelines for that to help them and help us understand what’s permissible and not permissible.”
Rules included in the new set of guidelines banned campaign rallies or campaign fundraising on campus, prohibited the use of university funding (including the student activity fee) for partisan events and required that all event marketing be reviewed by the office for Strategic Communication and Marketing.
Following feedback from student organization leaders, this new set of guidelines is now under revision. Simone Washington, vice president of Trinity Progressives (T-Prog), helped organize a meeting between Student Involvement and student organization representatives.
“In the meeting, we went section by section with [Thompson] and Shannon Edmond explaining the rational and students voicing their concerns. Primarily, we were concerned with the vague language used in the document that could be broadly applied to a potentially several student programs,” Washington said. “We also raised concerns about the lack of inclusion into the process of drafting these guidelines, organizations’ ability to distribute partisan materials, and — of course — the use of university funds for partisan activity.”
Senior Frances Stone, SGA senator, was present at the meeting. She explained that after clarification, the guidelines were not as restrictive as she first believed.
“The language of the document itself is quite vague in multiple places, so prior to the meeting, the policies seemed incredibly restrictive. After having Jamie explain the actual limitations and how much autonomy our partisan student groups still have, I think everyone left in much better spirits,” Stone said.
Following the revisions, student organizations will be allowed to distribute partisan campaign materials as long as they do not contain a fundraising ask. Thompson also clarified many sections of the guidelines. Promotional materials will not need to be reviewed by the office for Strategic Communication and Marketing but rather by Thompson herself. Any insurance needed for an event will be paid for by the third-party, not by the student organization.
Student organizations will continue to be consulted as the revisions to the new guidelines take place. Thompson hopes to meet again with student organization leaders next week to finalize the revisions.
“Well, firstly — as I think was the biggest shortcoming here — the university should always involve the students affected by these kind of of policies if possible. Student leaders felt upset that they had no say in these policies that directly affect how their organizations can operate,” Stone said.
One issue that has yet to be resolved is the context under which a running candidate can visit campus. While the new guidelines ban campaign rallies, there is confusion over what constitutes a rally. While a definition of a rally is still being discussed, Thompson provided reasons for why they are not allowed.
“As a 501(c)(3), Trinity can’t ever be seen as endorsing specific candidates, so it’s part of creating that distance between student organizations and institutions,” Thompson said. “From an outsider perspective, even with disclaimers and things like that, I think that the concept of a campaign rally at an institution of higher education is too risky.”
Thompson also noted that campaign rallies aren’t connected to the purpose of student organizations.
“The purposes and activities of student organizations at Trinity University are to reflect and complement the institution’s academic mission and to provide opportunities for students’ personal development and achievement. Student organizations promote the exchange of ideas among students and the Trinity community,” Thompson said. “While there may be incidental third parties at typical student organization events, a campaign rally — in contrast — is primarily designed for the community at large, not the Trinity community.”
Sophomore Carson Bolding, public relations officer for T-Prog, spoke for the educational value of rallies.
“We think that candidates should be allowed to speak in a candidate capacity, particularly if it’s hosted by a partisan student group. The limitations in the guidelines disincentivize any candidate from coming to campus to speak, as they aren’t allowed to promote their campaign,” Bolding wrote in an email interview. “Limiting the ability of student organizations to bring in speakers and educate our peers on the politics of the community they’re living in directly contradicts those values. If you want us to make a difference, you have to give us the space to do so.”
Despite the need for clarification and revision, some aspects of the guidelines were well received, especially in contrast to the ACE memo. The new guidelines do allow for student organizations to endorse a candidate, which was not allowed under the ACE memo. And while the guidelines do restrict sources of funding for partisan events, senior Luke Ayers — president of Tigers for Life — pointed out a potential benefit.
“I would certainly be upset if I found out that my SAF funds were used to advance the candidacy of someone I opposed,” Ayers said.
The overall concept of political activity restrictions on campus is still causing some concern for student organization leaders.
“My concern is primarily with the effect the rules as a whole may have on stifling political activity generally, and with the ways that future [Student Involvement] staff who are less impartial than Jamie and Shannon could use the rule to effectively ban political activity they personally disagreed with,” Ayers said.
Isaiah Mitchell, president of Tigers for Liberty, agreed with Ayers.
“Generally speaking, I don’t like the shift away from the kind of openness and acceptance that Trinity has traditionally had about political activity on campus,” Mitchell said. “Trinity has heretofore been very free about allowing students to do almost anything they want to do — obviously there are reasonable limitations that have always been there about the kinds of speakers we bring and so forth, but generally I’ve been proud and I’ve bragged on our administrators for taking a lot of flak for allowing us to bring speakers and do activities on campus, and I don’t want to see that change, so this kind of bothers me if it signals a gradual shift away from that kind of attitude.”