Avoiding a lawsuit, or inviting one?

The Daily Northwestern published a story today that raised some interesting questions about the rights of NU students who want to promote political candidates.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: The Students for Ron Paul feel their right to promote their candidate is being suppressed because the university bans them from the Arch and the Rock, two important campus landmarks.

According to the article, university counsel Thomas Cline offered the following explanation for the policy:

“The University as an institution may not engage in partisan political activity … because the Internal Revenue Code contains a blanket prohibition on tax-exempt organizations such as Northwestern participating in or intervening in political campaign activities in support of or in opposition to candidates for public office.”

Here’s what I’m wondering: What does this location restriction on free speech have to do with preventing the university from “participating in or intervening in” the Ron Paul campaign? I don’t comprehend why certain locations amount to unlawful university participation, while others don’t.

Furthermore, by banning campaign activities in certain parts of campus — heavily-trafficked parts that are open to all sorts of non-partisan advocacy — isn’t the university in a way intervening in the students’ campaign?

Incidentally, several months ago I was speaking with an Evanston alderman (I’ll decline to identify which one, as I never stipulated that our conversation might end up on a blog). Herself affected by an outright ban on campus campaigning, she called NU’s policies beyond absurd. If the university’s claims that it wants to encourage student activity in city government are true, why not simply invite all candidates to campus, she wondered. The alderman mentioned that other universities allow this, but that Northwestern seems more concerned about avoiding lawsuits. I’m no lawyer, but I just can’t see how the university might get in trouble, so long as it doesn’t offer preferential treatment to any particular candidate.

And as a former student group leader, I’ve been personally affected by our wacky rules on this: Student groups here are banned from bringing candidates for office to campus, except in extenuating circumstances. One of these occurred in 2006, when the Campus Greens brought Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney (Remember him? Any of you Blago supporters think he might have been a better choice?) to campus for a “discussion of issues.” Mention of *anything* pertaining to the election was banned, even though — if my memory serves me correctly — the Democratic and Republican candidates had declined invitations to come to campus. A university representative filtered student questions, blocking anything that pertained to policy differences between candidates, opinions on Whitney’s opponents, etc. (I myself had a question censored.)

Surely NU doesn’t want a repeat of the Judy Fiske lawsuit from a few years ago, no matter how frivolous Fiske’s claims were. (And they were remarkably frivolous.) But I wonder if NU is being so cautious with these policies that it’s inviting a suit from the other side.

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2 Responses to Avoiding a lawsuit, or inviting one?

  1. laurabethnielsen says:

    Welcome David! Interesting issues — not just from a legal point of view, but a campus/community relations point of view.

    For those who do not know David, he is an undergrad in my seminar who was part of one of my favorite classroom moments ever: I was talking about License to Harass (copies still available on Amazon.com) and he made such an articulate ACLU-style first amendment argument that I said, “what are you, a member of the ACLU or something?” I was joking, but he pulled out his wallet and produced his membership card!

    This whole “no political activities” for 501c3 organizations is troubling because organizations lobby or do politicking when it serves the official purpose, but use the rule to limit others who have less power. Same is true of public interest law firms. More on that for another day.

  2. […] Controlling Authority wrote an interesting post today on Avoiding a lawsuit, or inviting one?Here’s a quick excerptHere’s the issue in a nutshell: The Students for Ron Paul feel their right to promote their candidate is being suppressed because the university bans them f… […]

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