When I began conducting research for this column, I hoped to find a definitive solution to the problems between student political groups and the university’s policy toward political activities on campus.
As I soon found out, the conflicts here are too complex to solve with my limited expertise and a 600-word column. Instead, I hope to clarify some of the issues at hand and offer ideas that could lead to constructive discussions between students and administrators on the topic.
For those who are unaware, the University of Dayton restricts the variety of permissible political activities that may occur on campus in order to comply with federal law regarding its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. This has included, among other things, a ban on “any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office,” which has upset some student groups, including the College Democrats and College Republicans.
Just because the university prohibits campaigning on its property does not mean that it wants to stifle its students’ rights to freedom of expression. Rather, I believe that the university is honestly just trying to protect its status as a 501(c)(3) organization. The loss of that status would have immeasurable financial consequences for our community.
At the same time, I think that the degree to which this policy restricts political activity is greater than necessary. Amy Lopez-Matthews, executive director of Student Life and Kennedy Union, explained, “I think people at times are taking a very conservative approach … not to politics but to policy” regarding the balance between political activity and the university’s tax-exempt status.
And while the preservation of the institution’s financial integrity is of the utmost concern, the overly-strict regulations placed on political activities have caused the student population to miss out on an integral part of life in an election year.
On the one hand, student leaders have expressed their frustration to Flyer News editors with what they perceive as vague responses from administrators to their questions. On the other hand, Lopez-Matthews discussed a variety of resources provided to partisan groups on campus so that they could address issues and clarify concerns directly with administrators.
Obviously, there’s a communication breakdown somewhere between these two groups. Whether it’s a failure on the students’ part to utilize their available resources or a failure of the administration to adequately address the students’ concerns when they do talk is hard to tell, but it’s probably both.
It’s easy to tell, however, that the administration developed this policy by determining the most political activity they were comfortable with and going no further. And while all students should appreciate the care with which they protect the financial integrity of UD, we should also expect that they will fight to expand our moral right to freedom of expression, rather than determining their level of comfort and stopping there.
Administrators and student groups should work together to explore the law and develop more liberal policies. Specifically, I believe that research on existing exemptions to the law – including student newspapers – and language in the Code of Federal Regulations that permits political activities that are an “insubstantial part” of a non-profit’s activities could prove promising. Additionally, they should speak with officials at other universities to find out how they comply with IRS regulations too.
I have faith that the list of permissible activities can be expanded, but it will take intense cooperation on both sides to see this through.