College Republicans who posted campaign materials supporting Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at Washington & Lee University last month were ordered to take them down by school officials who asserted it was in order to protect its Internal Revenue Service (IRS) non-profit status.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) noted in a report that the conservative students were censored after setting up a booth on Sept 12 for the college’s annual activities fair which included campaign materials for Youngkin as the Nov 2 election was near-at-hand.
The group was told by the Director of Student Activities Kelsey Goodwin that the political messages had to be removed because she claimed it violated the university’s 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.
Initially, FIRE sent a letter to the university privately to express their concerns about the directive that limited the students’ free speech. The Sept 23 letter outlined the difference between the university participating in political activity versus the students and that the latter does not violate laws governing 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations.
“It is in W&L’s institutional interest to refrain from censoring student political expression, because its commitment to free expression avoids the appearance that it is the university that is endorsing political viewpoints,” the letter read.
The letter further implored the university to reverse its stance and affirm the students’ rights to free speech on campus.
“In light of increased political discourse surrounding the imminent election in Virginia, we call on the university to make clear to students that their political expression will not be restricted,” the document stated.
But the university did not respond to the advocacy group’s call to affirm the students’ rights.
Washington & Lee College Republicans chair Lilly Gillespie explained to Campus Reform that the university is prohibiting students “from using school resources to express our opinions of candidates seeking office.”
“I was shocked when I found out that we couldn’t disseminate campaign materials on campus,” said Gillespie. “I hope that publicizing this story gives students on both sides of the aisle more agency and liberty.”
FIRE Program Analyst Sabrina Conza questioned the logic behind the censorship since partisan groups are allowed on campus.
“What is the purpose of College Republicans or College Democrats organizations if they can’t actually advocate for a Republican or a Democrat?” she asked. “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.”
Students at the university explained this was not the first instance of silencing conservatives on campus.
“I’m not at all surprised the university has tried to suppress conservative political speech on campus,” undergraduate Elizabeth Hertzberg said. “It would not be the first time one side of the debate has been stifled.”
A Washington & Lee University spokesman told Fox News that the guidance is “longstanding and is implemented in a fair and non-partisan way.”
“W&L is a long-time proponent of freedom of expression, and adopted the Chicago Principles affirming freedom of expression in December 2015,” Drewry Sackett said. “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.”
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