Political activity on campus

Colleges and universities are natural places for political discourse and activity.  As such, there are laws, rules, and regulations that provide guidance parameters to colleges about what they can and cannot do on campus during elections.  The Higher Education Act, Internal Revenue Service, and Federal Election Commission all have guidelines directing institutions of higher education on what they must do and what activities institutions may or may not engage in while maintaining their non-profit 501 (c)(3) status.

About

Prior to each gubernatorial and federal election cycle, colleges and universities are required by the Higher Education Act (HEA) to assist students with the voter registration process.  Encouraging, informing, and facilitating widespread civic engagement has long been one of higher education’s most basic characteristics. The required voter registration activities must be nonpartisan, and apply to all federal and gubernatorial elections, as well as special elections for such offices.
 
Private, nonprofit colleges and universities are prohibited from participating directly or indirectly in any political campaign for or against a candidate for elected office.  However, they are allowed to participate in nonpartisan election-related activities. Because of their 501 (c)(3) non-profit status, private college and university leaders must be aware of the political campaign activities that can and cannot be arranged on campus, based on IRS and FEC rules and regulations.  Colleges that do not adhere to these regulations risk losing their non-profit status.
 

Background

As each gubernatorial and federal election campaign season begins, campus-based student activism naturally increases.  College and university leaders need to remain up-to-date on the “do’s and don’ts” of political activity on campus. 
 
Specifically, they need to show a good-faith effort to distribute in-state voter registration forms to all students enrolled or attending class on campus.  In 2008, the HEA reauthorization clarified that this requirement could also be fulfilled by sending email messages to students with links to state registration forms, as long as the messages are devoted exclusively to voter registration.  This clarification made it easier for institutions to comply, and for students to receive the information.
 
To assist campuses with these efforts, NAICU co-chairs higher education’s National Campus Voter Registration Project and maintains the Your Vote Your Voice website, which supports civic engagement activities among students.  The website, includes a complete list of state voter registration deadlines and contacts, a direct link to a national voter registration website, and provides tools and resources to assist colleges with voter registration activities.   
 
With regard to political activity, the IRS has recently issued a FAQ on the Ban on Political Activity at 501 (c)(3) Organizations.  This resource covers the details of what is allowed and prohibited for non-profits, including colleges and universities. The American Council on Education issued a memorandum on political campaign activities to presidents in March 2016, which is also a helpful guide to the rules applying to 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt institutions.

Generally permitted activities for institutions include:

  • Voter education: Colleges are required to make a good faith effort to provide in-state voter registration forms to students before the state voter registration deadline.  Colleges can meet the requirement by sending an email focused on voter registration and containing a link to the state voter registration website.  Colleges are allowed to provide voter education activities, such as training on the basics of the electoral process and get-out-the-vote activities.
  • Candidate appearances: Political candidates may appear on college campuses as long as equal access is offered to all FEC legally registered candidates to speak, have campus radio air time, or participate in a public forum, for example.
  • Issue advocacy: Colleges are allowed to participate in issue-based advocacy as long as it is nonpartisan and does not target a candidate or political party.  However, when taking a position on an issue, colleges need to be careful not to do so in a way that would point students toward one candidate over another.
  • Faculty, staff, and administration activities: Campus faculty, staff and administration may participate in electoral campaign activities of their choosing as long as it does not take place during their work hours for the college, does not invoke the endorsement of the college, and does not use any college funds, supplies, or equipment to participate.

Generally prohibited activities for institutions include:
 
  • Endorsing (or opposing) candidates, including rating candidates and commenting on specific candidate actions in any form, including on electronic message boards and social media.
  • Fundraising for candidates on campus or using college funds, supplies, or equipment for fundraising purposes.
  • Using institutional letterhead or logos to support (or oppose) a candidate or political party.
  • Coordinating voter education activities with candidate campaign events. Sponsoring campaign events.


The lists above are general and illustrative.  State election laws may include additional rules for colleges and universities. Colleges should always consult with counsel before engaging in political campaign activities.

In the News

 

 

What You Can Do 

  • Participate in educational civic engagement activities on your campus.
  • Consult with your legal counsel before engaging in political campaign activities.

Resources

NAICU Contacts

  • For voter registration questions, contact Robert "Bo" Newsome: Bo@NAICU.edu 
  • For questions about campaign activities, contact Stephanie Giesecke: Stephanie@NAICU.edu
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