Limiting politics gags colleges

After the 2012 presidential election, when mysterious nonprofits handed out billions in campaign funding, the federal government crafted new ways to control the political activities of tax-exempt organizations.

The latest plan, proposed in November, extends to nonprofit colleges, prohibiting them from engaging students in any political activity, such as hosting a politician or holding a voting rally.

While regulating nonprofits is necessary to stem campaign fraud, the law goes beyond preventing colleges from supporrting candidates. Limiting political involvement on campus infringes on students’ free speech and shortchanges their educational experience. Taking politics out of the classroom could damage students’ abilities to further their awareness and engage with the world. While Columbia doesn’t offer a political science major, political discussion is still a key component of some courses. LAS classes that contain a political component can benefit from going to speeches and participating in political activities.

Columbia has hosted Gov. Pat Quinn before, according to college spokesman Steve Kaufman, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also spoken at the college. Forbidding politicians’ presence would exclude important figures and remove possible components of a full educational experience.

The proposed restrictions would also prohibit nonprofit colleges from expressing any opinions or even circulating news about a political candidate within 30–60 days of an upcoming election. The American Council on Education filed a complaint arguing that the restrictions violate colleges’ missions to educate students on all topics and essentially place a gag order on college communications about election-related news.

Nonprofit colleges are technically 501(c)(3)s under the subsection of the tax code that allows them tax-exempt status and prohibits direct political activities such as candidate endorsement and activism. Most of the nonprofits in question in the 2012 presidential election were classified as 501(c)(4)s under a subsection that labels them public welfare organizations, which can participate in political activity. While the two classifications differ, the legislation would extend the same restrictions to both.

The concern about colleges acting on their donors’ political persuasions is legitimate—billionaire oil tycoons and political activists Charles and David Koch filtered $30.5 million through 221 U.S. colleges to leverage political influence in 2012, according to a July 2013 Investigative Reporting Workshop report. But a broad ban on all political activity is not the proper way to limit that influence. Instead, colleges should report all political contributions and donors on their taxes. Currently, colleges must report all lobbyist activities, but not donations.

Though the lack of control over nonprofit political contributions is a national problem that needs to be addressed, the proposal is too risky to be passed. Colleges could lose their autonomy to decide what events to host on campus and risk sacrificing students’ free speech on campus. A possible solution could be to establish a board of objective analysts to supervise political activity at various nonprofit colleges and universities. An independent review council that oversees collegiate political activity would be able to sound the alarm in the case of a college pushing any political agendas.

Limiting political activity on college campuses is like injecting America’s future with a slow-acting poison. The up-and-coming generation of college graduates would have less formal education from knowledgeable professionals about political systems and they would lack an informed, objective opinion about current politics. All college graduates, not just political science majors, need to at least have a basic understanding of politics to be effective voters and function as members of a democratic society.