Washington and Lee University told its College Republicans club that it could not campaign for gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin just days before Virginians head to the polls.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to the university demanding it to allow the Republicans to campaign for their preferred candidate after student activities director Kelsey Goodwin allegedly told the club president, Lillian Gillespie, to remove campaign materials for Youngkin at the annual activity fair in September because they could risk the private university’s tax-exempt status.
“I was shocked when I found out that we couldn’t disseminate campaign materials on campus,” Gillespie said. “I hope that publicizing this story gives students on both sides of the aisle more agency and liberty.”
FIRE previously sent a letter on Sept. 23 asking Washington and Lee to honor the students’ freedom of speech, pointing out that so long as a political endorsement came from a collegiate organization or individual, the college would not be in breach of its tax-exempt status.
“Although W&L is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, it must live up to the promises it makes in regard to student expression,” FIRE said.
A spokesman for Washington and Lee told the Washington Examiner that the university’s guidance about on-campus political activity “is long-standing and is implemented in a fair and nonpartisan way” and “is in place to protect the university’s nonprofit status.”
“W&L is a longtime proponent of freedom of expression and adopted the Chicago Principles affirming freedom of expression in December 2015,” the statement read. “The university’s interpretation of the IRS Code in this case applies to the distribution of campaign materials on campus, but is not intended to infringe upon individual student or employee expression.”
Gillespie had several meetings with college officials, including Goodwin, who said the university has never allowed student groups to advocate for political candidates.
According to Washington and Lee’s policies, student political clubs are “not prohibited from pursuing their normal activities consistent with the academic nature of their endeavors,” but when holding a political event, they must stipulate “that the purpose of the event is educational, and does not imply any endorsement of (or opposition to) any candidate by the University.”
But FIRE maintained that the club is inherently political and should be allowed to advocate for partisan candidates.
“What is the purpose of College Republicans or College Democrats organizations if they can’t actually advocate for a Republican or a Democrat?” asked FIRE Program Analyst Sabrina Conza. “Goodwin is wrong in her assessment of the law, and the university is wrong to remain silent after censoring students who want to take part in the political process. Now, they must make it right.”
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Original Author: Virginia Aabram