FIRE Releases Statement on Political Activity on Campus for 2012 Election Season, Following Censorship at Grambling State University and Other Colleges
November 9, 2011
by Azhar Majeed
With the 2012 election season getting underway, FIRE is reminding college students and faculty across the nation of their right to engage in political speech on campus. Today, FIRE releases an updated and expanded Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus detailing the protection for political expression enjoyed by students and faculty at public and private colleges nationwide. Given the censorship of political speech FIRE witnessed during the 2008 and 2010 election seasons at universities such as Grambling State University (GSU), FIRE's reminder is timely and necessary.
Our policy statement details the freedom of political expression that students, student groups, faculty, and staff at public and private universities should expect at their institutions. The statement also reminds university administrators of their legal and moral obligations to ensure the protection of student and faculty political expression. While the Internal Revenue Code restricts nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain political activity, these prohibitions apply to the institution itself and those reasonably perceived to be speaking on its behalf, not to individual students, faculty, or staff engaged in their own expression.
FIRE's statement is necessary because universities like GSU have ignored the free speech rights of students and faculty. Despite being a public university both legally and morally bound by the First Amendment, GSU continues to forbid students and faculty from transmitting any "campaign solicitations" via the university's email system, a ban that includes any message that "implies your support" for a political candidate. Concerned students turned to FIRE for help in 2010.
In July 2010, GSU's Office of Media Relations emailed all GSU students that "Individuals who receive political campaign solicitations via university email are advised to delete these emails upon receipt." The email also instructed, "DO NOT FORWARD campaign solicitations using university email as this implies your support for the candidate and may be viewed as utilizing university resources for solicitation purposes, a violation of state policy."
FIRE wrote to GSU President Frank G. Pogue on September 1, 2010, pointing out that GSU's policy against forwarding any email containing "campaign solicitations" prohibits political speech, a special concern of the First Amendment. FIRE's letter pointed out that, under well-established First Amendment precedent, a public university may not broadly deny its students and faculty members the right to engage in core political speech, such as campaign solicitations.
In response, Grambling State spokesperson Vanessa Littleton sent FIRE a new version of the school's "Email Use Policy," which somehow presented arguably worse violations of the First Amendment rights of GSU students and faculty. Frustrated by GSU's inability to correct its policy despite national negative media attention, FIRE and the ACLU of Louisiana released a joint statement regarding Grambling State's restrictions on political speech on September 22, 2010, detailing the constitutional flaws in GSU's policy.
Pogue promised FIRE in an October 8, 2010, letter that changes to GSU's policy were forthcoming, but has since been silent about revisions to the unconstitutional Email Use Policy. Indeed, more than a year later, we are still waiting for GSU to follow through on its promise.
In 2008, FIRE fought additional campus restrictions on political speech. At the University of Oklahoma, students and faculty were notified that "the forwarding of political humor/commentary" using their university email accounts was prohibited. In response to a letter from FIRE, the university modified its stance, stating that the prohibition is only applicable "to the extent discussions are attributable to the University as endorsing or opposing a political candidate." At the University of Illinois, the university Ethics Office issued a newsletter warning faculty against engaging in political expression on campus, including attending political rallies, wearing buttons, and even placing bumper stickers on their cars. After widespread criticism and a letter from FIRE, President B. Joseph White issued a clarification, assuring faculty members that the university would allow them to engage in such expression.
Similarly, in September 2011, FIRE and the American Association of University Professors sent a joint letter to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, issuing a strong warning about a proposed electronic communications policy that would have sharply restricted student and faculty speech on campus and included a broad ban on "political campaigning." Happily, in response to our concerns, the proposed policy was withdrawn from consideration.
But the lessons from 2008 and 2010, and beyond, tell us that more work remains to be done to protect student and faculty political speech at America's colleges and universities. Thus, as our Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, Will Creeley, says in today's press release, "As we begin the 2012 election season, students and faculty at GSU and schools nationwide need to know the extent of their right to voice their opinions about the choices facing our country. All university community members should read FIRE's new statement on campus political expression-and should remember to contact FIRE if their speech is censored."