Presidential candidates regularly visit college campuses to speak, sign autographs or participate in televised debates.The colleges themselves tiptoe around regulations forbidding nonprofit entities from publicly endorsing candidates or hosting fund raising events, and usually that keeps both students and the feds happy. But in the past few weeks, two institutions have turned away a candidate -- both in person and on screen -- and they've angered students and activists who say administrators are being overly cautious in seeking to avoid any appearance of bias. While the principles involved are theoretically the same for all candidates, these incidents may attract more attention than usual because the person in question is, well, kind of a big deal on campus.
Barack Obama won't ever have to worry about finding enough venues to host him, but he'd be justified in feeling a little unappreciated right now. Within weeks of each other, Washington University in St. Louis turned down his campaign's request for a visit, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago decided not to screen a documentary about the candidate's 2006 trip to Kenya. Both cited concerns about the appearance of partisanship, even though legal experts agree that in most cases, such visits and screenings -- if organized under certain conditions -- are perfectly legal.
"I think it is common for candidates to want to visit colleges, and I think a lot of that goes on in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, as we’ve seen," said Ada Meloy, the general counsel of the American Council on Education, which produced a document last year on legal issues surrounding colleges and political campaigns.
She added that "they do have to be cautious about how it’s handled."
The ACE guidelines, which are based on relevant law, Internal Revenue Service rulings and legal cases, note that colleges can provide "opportunities to speak at college or university events on an equal basis to all legally qualified candidates for a public office." If an institution invites a candidate, it has to extend the welcome to all of them. If one requests a visit, the institution can agree only if it would also do so for other candidates. But the institution doesn't need to worry if other candidates haven't asked to appear -- the key issue is equal access rights, not equal time. And if a college president endorses a candidate, as a few have recently, he or she must do so in a way that makes it clear that it's a personal opinion, not that of the institution.
There are also caveats on what a college should do to ensure that it doesn't run afoul of the law: "An explicit statement should be made as part of the introduction of the speaker and in communications concerning the speaker’s attendance that the institution does not support or oppose the candidate. Campaign fund raising at the event should be prohibited. The institution must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the appearances constitute speeches, question-and-answer sessions or similar communications in an academic setting and are not conducted as campaign rallies or events."
"Parties and the media seek out university venues for debates and what have you. I think part of it is ... a recognition of the university as a marketplace of ideas," said Sheldon E. Steinbach, senior counsel at the postsecondary education practice at the law firm Dow Lohnes.
According to Rob Wild, the assistant to the chancellor, Washington University's decision wasn't about IRS regulations so much as the university's longstanding policy against hosting rallies for presidential candidates in the first place. Ironically, the university will be hosting a vice-presidential debate after the primary season, which he said was another factor behind the decision, since administrators wanted to avoid the possibility of perceived support for one of the candidates.
"This is really more about the disruption that campaign rallies cause to the day-to-day activities on our campus, more than a statement about a fear of losing our tax status," Wild said. The campus newspaper, Student Life, noted that the university had allowed the College Republicans to invite Gov. Mike Huckabee, a presidential candidate, to campus last year and that controversial speakers such as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales haven't been barred.
The Art Institute's school, by contrast, explicitly cited its nonprofit status and a desire to avoid "a perceived aura of support."
The documentary, Senator Obama Goes to Africa, chronicles the presidential hopeful's trip to Kenya, where he still has relatives. The film was produced independently, although Obama himself narrates it. A review in The Chicago Sun-Times noted that some people listed in the documentary's credits have contributed to the senator's campaign.
"The claim by SAIC administrators that showing a documentary about a political candidate violates IRS rules for non-profits is utter hogwash," wrote John K. Wilson, an author of books on academic freedom and Obama, and founder of the Institute for College Freedom, at the DailyKos blog. "A documentary is considered news coverage, which means it gets a total exemption from prohibitions on political activity by non-profits. Moreover, the rules are perfectly clear that colleges can hear from journalists speaking about politicians, and can even hear from politicians directly. (Otherwise, all of the appearances by political candidates at colleges would be illicit and result in the loss of non-profit status.)"
"I am unhappy with their decision but I respect it," said Bob Hercules, one of the film's producers, in an e-mail. "I think their legal people overreacted to the fear of running the film affecting their 501(c)(3) status. We made the film in 2006, before the presidential announcement, so our intention was not to make a 'campaign film' but simply a chronicle of Obama's trip back to his father's homeland in Kenya."
In 2004, groups tried -- but failed -- to stop colleges from screening Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 or allowing the filmmaker to speak on campuses, claiming that his messages violated prohibitions against partisan endorsements.
The American Association of University Professors released a statement last year on academic freedom and campus speakers, which said, in part: "The idea that a university 'participates' or 'intervenes' in a political campaign by providing a forum to hear speakers who have something to communicate about issues of relevance to the campaign is thus fundamentally misplaced. The idea misconceives the role and responsibility of a university, which is not to endorse candidates but to discuss issues of relevance to society."