Alexander Atkins, a student at Georgetown University Law Center, was prevented from obtaining and setting up a table to campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic presidential candidate, in September 2015, on the law school’s campus. Law Center administrators cited the school’s status as a tax-exempt institution in preventing Atkins from soliciting for Sanders, on the grounds that the Internal Revenue Service prevents such institutions from supporting an individual political candidate. On March 3, 2016, Atkins testified about his experience at a U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee hearing titled “Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses.”
Alexander Atkins, a former student at Georgetown University Law Center. In September 2015, he requested a table from administrators for the purpose of displaying and distributing materials advocating that Bernie Sanders be elected president of the United States. The request was denied because it was “in support of a specific candidate,” reports the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). In October 2015 on the day of a Democratic primary debate, a group of students set up a table on campus to promote Sanders as a candidate. They were asked by the Law Center’s office of student life to cease their activity. Atkins contacted the school’s coordinator of student activities and was told that the school’s “Student Organization Policy on Partisan Political Activities” did not permit political campaigning, due to Georgetown University’s status as a non-profit.
Scott Fleming is associate vice president for federal relations at Georgetown University. Days before Atkins testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, Fleming wrote to subcommittee members explaining that the Law Center remained committed to promoting Free Speech, The Washington Post reports. Fleming emphasized that the administration was “adjusting the policies to make very clear that individuals as well as groups are able to reserve tables for organized activity and that all members of our community are able to make reasonable use of University resources to express their political opinions.”
On February 1, 2016, FIRE wrote to the Georgetown Law Center requesting that the administration adjust its policy to allow partisan political speech. In a press release distributed on February 2, FIRE Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon argued that “nonprofit restrictions on political campaigning apply to the institution itself, not to students or student groups.”
Ari Z. Cohn, an attorney who works for FIRE, claims that similar incidents occur frequently during election cycles, The Washington Free Beacon reports. He also noted that tax-exempt status is limited to speech from the institution itself, not the students.
On March 17, 2016, the Law Center announced policy revisions that encouraged students and faculty to participate in the political process, noting that “individuals should make clear that the views they express are their own, and should not suggest or imply that they are speaking for or in the name of Georgetown University or Georgetown University Law Center.” Individuals are also allowed to use “campus communications,” but cannot use “University-supported resources” like email or computer networks or servers to promote partisan political events.
Georgetown University Law Center Revises Policy
Georgetown University Law Center clarified its policy on political activism by stating that individuals are allowed to advocate for political candidates, but must make clear that their speech is individual and not representative of the institution as a whole.
Prepared by Graham Piro ‘18
August 22, 2017