Washington & Lee University’s College Republicans group was told to remove materials from its activities booth in September which advocated for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 2, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported.
Members of the student group were told to take down materials at the annual fair which supported Youngkin, with an administrator citing Washington & Lee’s (W&L) tax-exempt, non-profit status as justification for the notion that student groups may not advocate for political candidates, FIRE reported.
FIRE wrote a letter to W&L Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel Maria Feeley on Sept. 23 about this topic, to which FIRE said the university did not respond.
“W&L’s status as a 501(c)(3) organization does not compel the university to depart from its commitments to students’ freedom of expression,” the letter said. “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.”
“I was shocked when I found out that we couldn’t disseminate campaign materials on campus,” College Republicans President Lillian Gillespie told FIRE. “I hope that publicizing this story gives students on both sides of the aisle more agency and liberty.”
W&L’s Director of Student Activities Kelsey Goodwin told College Republicans that the display was a violation of university policy, FIRE reported. Goodwin used the university’s non-profit status to mandate that the group remove the materials, later sending Gillespie and W&L’s College Democrats President, Judy Park, an email with a link to the school’s statement on political activity.
Gillespie responded to Goodwin, saying it was “preposterous that the actions and opinions of a small minority of students dedicated to politics and political activity could be construed to represent the beliefs of the University as a whole.”
FIRE accepted that W&L can’t endorse candidates for office, but said that students’ speech doesn’t put the university’s 501(c)(3) status at risk.
“Private universities are not directly bound by the First Amendment, which limits only government action,” FIRE said. W&L adopted the Chicago Statement in Dec. 2015, and the university said of that decision that it has a “commitment to honor, civility, and the free exchange of ideas defines who we are as an educational institution.” According to FIRE, “until W&L defends student expression, its promises are worthless.”
Gillespie met with W&L twice in September, and Goodwin told her that W&L has never allowed student organizations to display materials advocating for political candidates. Goodwin then told Gillespie to speak with W&L’s attorneys, FIRE reported.
W&L didn’t immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
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