FAQ: The University and Political Campaigns

Some frequently asked questions about actions of the University in relation to political campaigns and political candidates:

General Questions

Are there limitations on actions that the University can take related to political campaigns and political candidates?

Yes. As a tax-exempt organization, the University is absolutely prohibited by federal law from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office at any level (federal, state, or local). Violation of this prohibition could lead to excise taxes or even jeopardize the University’s tax-exempt status.

As an employee of the University, how do I know whether my activity or something I would like to facilitate at the University could constitute prohibited participation or intervention by the University in a political campaign?

Whether any particular activity constitutes impermissible participation or intervention in a political campaign is highly fact-specific and depends on full consideration of all of the surrounding circumstances. If you are considering taking an action that relates to a political campaign, candidate, or issue and are unsure whether it is appropriate, please contact the Office of General Counsel for guidance.

Although determining whether an activity would be permissible depends on the specific facts of the situation, there are certain general principles that are instructive. Ordinarily, properly structured curricular and educational activities are permissible. On the other hand, there are certain types of activity that tend to be problematic.

What are the types of things that a University employee might do that tend to be problematic and could lead to prohibited participation or intervention by the University in a political campaign?

There are several: (1) hosting political candidates or elected officials, or their surrogates, on campus; (2) making certain statements about a political campaign, candidate, or issue; (3) making University resources (e.g., office space, University letterhead, etc.) available to political candidates and campaigns; and (4) engaging in political activities during normal work hours.

Hosting Political Candidates on Campus

What if I want to host a political candidate or elected official on campus? What should I do to make sure things are handled appropriately?

The University has developed guidelines to govern the hosting of political candidates and elected officials, and their surrogates, on campus. The guidelines are designed to ensure that the University does not violate the prohibition against participating or intervening in political campaigns by hosting such political figures. The guidelines for hosting political candidates or elected officials can be viewed here.

Statements on Political Campaigns and Candidates

What sorts of statements can constitute improper participation or intervention by the University in a political campaign?

The University and its leaders cannot make partisan comments in official University communications or at University functions. For example:

  • The University cannot as an entity issue communications indicating endorsement of, support for, or opposition to a candidate for public office. Even when issuing communications on public policy issues, the University must be careful that the communication does not express a message indicating support for or opposition to an individual’s political candidacy. This limitation extends to departments and units of the University. By way of illustration, a department or unit of the University should refrain from issuing communications or publications expressing support for an alumnus’s campaign for public office. (A student newspaper supported by University funds may publish editorial opinions on campaigns and political matters).
  • A University leader cannot express endorsement or opposition to a candidate for public office in official University communications (e.g., website, magazine, newsletter) or at a University function. A University leader may, independent of University communications and University functions, express support for or opposition to a candidate for public office, but must be clear in such a communication that he or she is speaking in an individual capacity and not on behalf of the University.
  • The University also should not distribute statements developed by others that favor or oppose candidates for public office.
  • The University and University leaders also should be careful regarding the manner in which they communicate about public policy and political issues. Discussing issues of public importance is central to the intellectual and academic life of the University. However, communications by the University or University leaders about such issues can become improper participation or intervention by the University in a political campaign if the issues are addressed in such a way that it is highly suggestive that the University is favoring or advocating for the candidacy of one political candidate or opposing or advocating against the candidacy of another political candidate, regardless of whether any political candidate is mentioned by name. In engaging in such communications, the University and University leaders must be careful to be objective and non-partisan in their discussion of the issues, such as by approaching them from an academic or intellectual perspective.

Am I a “University leader” who needs to be careful about what I say in regards to a political candidate or in regards to a public policy issue?

The law does not say explicitly which University employees could be considered a “University leader” whose comments could be viewed as prohibited intervention by the University in a political campaign. However, it is almost certain that University officers, members of the President’s Leadership Council, and Deans would be viewed as University leaders. Hence, these individuals should be careful when speaking on political matters. Leaders of departments and other units of the University—such as center and institute directors, faculty department chairs, and staff with management responsibility for a division, department, or other unit—should also be careful not to make statements or approve official communications that could suggest that their respective department or unit favors or disfavors a particular political candidate or political party.

Use of University Resources

Can I make any University resources available to political campaigns or political candidates?

No University resources (including University-furnished email accounts, listservs, and letterhead) can be used on a partisan basis in support of or in opposition to political candidates or political campaigns.

Does this mean that University funds cannot be used for partisan purposes?

Correct. No funds maintained or administered in any University account (including faculty discretionary accounts and procards) can be donated to or expended on behalf of a political campaign or political organization (e.g., political party, Political Action Committee (PAC)). Similarly, the University cannot reimburse employees for political donations, and the University also cannot coordinate University fundraising with political fundraising activities.

What are some other ways that University resources might be used in a way that constitutes prohibited participation or intervention by the University in a political campaign?

Except as otherwise approved through the University guidelines for hosting political candidates on campus (see guidelines here), University facilities should not be made available to political candidates, political campaigns, or political organizations unless they are made available under the same terms and conditions under which facilities are made available to other organizations outside the University and unless the University charges a fair market rate for such facilities. The same principles apply with respect to use of other University resources, such as mailing lists, telephones, photocopying, etc. To the extent that the University makes such facilities or resources available to political candidates, political campaigns, or political organizations, they must be made available on an equal basis to other candidates, campaigns, and political organizations. Employees should absolutely refrain from using official University email, letterhead, websites, or other indicia that an action or communication is sponsored or endorsed by the University in furtherance of a political candidate, political campaign, or a political organization, and should not furnish such resources to political candidates, campaigns, or organizations.

How about the resources the University makes available to student political groups?

The University must treat student political groups on equal terms and will review student political group activity for consistency with the prohibitions on the University’s intervention or participation in political campaigns. Student political groups may not engage in fundraising on behalf of an elected official, political candidate, political campaign, political party, or other political organization on the University campus or in connection with University events.

What about voter education or voter registration drives?

The University cannot develop or distribute voter education guides, sponsor a voter registration drive, or otherwise be associated with such materials or activity unless they are non-partisan in nature and structured in a way such that there is no indication of affiliation with, or favor or disfavor for, a political candidate or party. In addition, any such voter education efforts must not be focused so narrowly on a particular issue and must not provide information in such a manner that would reflect bias for or against a political candidate or party.

Activities During and After Work Hours

Can I take time during the work day to assist a political campaign or candidate that I personally support?

University employees are absolutely prohibited from engaging in activities in support of a political campaign or candidate during their working hours.

What about after the work day? For example, can I host a fundraiser at my home for a political campaign or candidate that I personally support?

University employees may engage in activities in support of (or in opposition to) political campaigns and candidates after work hours, provided such activities do not involve the use of University resources. The exception is that University leaders, while engaging in any political activity on a personal basis, must communicate and otherwise make clear that such activity is being conducted in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the University. Like other University employees, University leaders may not use University resources in support of their own personal political activities.

Where can I get further information on the limitations imposed on charitable organizations with respect to political campaigns and candidates?

The IRS provides information on limitations on charitable organizations and political activities here.