Free speech rights on campus are murky, feminist leaders say

Campus discussion of political activity policy has increased with upcoming election


The #iScream4Equality bus tours around campuses in Virginia to educate voters on the Equal Rights Amendment. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Hannah Denham

After two feminist student organizations were chastised for events and advertising that the university said violated its political activity policies, students met with faculty advisors and the provost and received support from the Faculty Affairs Committee.

But for the student leaders of Gender Action Group and the Pink Elephants, who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, what rights exist for their political engagement on and off campus still aren’t clear.

On Friday, Jan. 17, Provost Marc Conner met with Pink Elephants president Seren McClain, ‘22, vice-president Aoife Chow, ‘22, and faculty advisor Robin LeBlanc; Gender Action Group leader Beverley Xia, ‘22, and faculty advisor Melina Bell; and Dean of the College Lena Hill.

Conner said in an email that his biggest takeaway from the discussion was to involve all parties—students, administrators and general counsel—for future events.

“Not only would that be a way for everyone to be heard and to understand all the issues, but then we’d have the chance to learn from each other and build trust and understanding,” Conner said. “I think we all understand the obvious examples—such as, someone comes to campus to say ‘vote for person A’ or ‘vote yes’ on this particular issue. But it’s when there’s a need to make a judgment on a more ambiguous project that it gets challenging.”

In October, Gender Action Group invited the #iScream4Equality van sharing information about the Equal Rights Amendment to campus, but the university’s general counsel said it couldn’t park on campus without violating IRS code and the university’s political activity policy.

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GAG advisor Melina Bell forwarded an invitation to the Oct. 28 event to Pink Elephants president Seren McClain, ‘22, and she forwarded it to her email list. The next day, Director of Student Activities Kelsey Goodwin said the email, as well as another emailed invitation to a post-election victory event for local Del. Ronnie Campbell (R), violated the university’s electioneering guidelines.

“It’s particularly telling that the ERA thing was not a partisan event because in fact the women students who were trying to publicize it were openly identifying themselves with issues across the political spectrum,” LeBlanc said. “It’s deeply problematic to view questions about the equal rights of women as essentially connected to a campaign issue on a campus where virtually, by Title IX, we’re committed to the view that women are equal.”

McClain said the Campbell event email wasn’t addressed during the meeting.

“It is a feminist group with political affiliations, so it would make sense for us to support things like the ERA or Republican candidates in our local area,” McClain said. “It really just puts into question what can student organizations do, are they limited, in what ways and if so, who decides that.”

Conner said he supported general counsel’s position on the ERA #IScream4Equality event.

“This is a serious issue, not only because it impacts our standing as a non-profit entity (the loss of which would devastate our programs, student financial aid, and more) but also because objectivity and neutrality at the university level is fundamental to our commitment to freedom of expression for all,” Conner said.

Washington and Lee’s Associate General Counsel Jana Shearer said in an email that she has not directly communicated with any student groups on how general counsel interprets IRS policy and the university’s political activity policy. But she said she encourages members of the campus community to reach out as soon as a question arises to work through it together.

“In light of the recent questions raised, the Office of General Counsel is in the process of evaluating its current guidance and FAQs to determine if there is more information that we can provide to help members of the community navigate these complicated issues,” Shearer said. “Issues regarding political campaign activity, issue advocacy, and campaign intervention are not black and white, and it would be impossible to have a policy or guidance that addresses every situation that may arise.”

“We don’t have a clear admission that in this case the university got it wrong and that would be useful to the students who are still in doubt about what they can and cannot do,” LeBlanc said. “And two, we do not have a commitment to a narrow interpretation of how students speech should be limited in the future. And those two things I think should matter to students across the political spectrum.”

Kelsey Goodwin said she wants student leaders and their advisors to reach out to her with any questions they may have about specific situations. She said her role often functions as a messenger between student groups and general counsel and she said she disperses the political activity policy to student leaders via email, campus notices and in-person trainings each year.

“This is not an issue of controlling speech per se or certainly not intended to not have campus dialogues or center around current issues or activism,” Goodwin said. “My goal is to help student organizations on this campus do more, not less.”

Chow said she was hesitant at first to talk to the Ring-tum Phi about her interaction with administrators on the issue because she wasn’t sure what her rights to free speech were.

As a politics major, Chow said, she feels like she’s not allowed to engage with politics outside the classroom, despite the university’s reputation as a political campus.

“There’s a big messy election cycle coming up, and if we can’t talk about our viewpoints, that’s limiting our educational opportunity, educational growth,” she said. “I definitely wish honestly there was more open dialogue between students, faculty and general counsel because general counsel will just hand down a decree and we had no idea what we did wrong.”

Goodwin said that the university has to take extra care to adhere to the IRS code regarding political activity with the coming election season and campus resources, including facilities and the email system, can’t be used to support candidates or partisan campaigns.

“We talk about political issues on college campuses all the time. It’s what we’re here to do,” Goodwin said.“Something like a political issue or discussing a bill or discussing something that is of national significance, we would like to encourage those kinds of events and encourage groups like Gender Action Group and Pink Elephants to do that.”

Shearer cited the university’s Statement Concerning Political Activity to address the role of students protecting its 501(c)(3) status, which bars any institutional resources be used by political candidates and political campaigns.

“While all members of the community are free to engage in political campaign activity in their individual capacities, no members of the community, including students, are permitted to use university resources in connection with or in support of such political campaign activity,” Shearer said.

During the meeting, Conner proposed holding a panel on free speech in academic settings with professional experts. Both LeBlanc and McClain said that while the panel sounded like a positive event, it wouldn’t be specific enough to provide clarification on policy at Washington and Lee.

“I don’t think that meeting enlightened me to know, ‘Now I can send out these things via email or advertise these things,’” McClain said.

McClain said she recently received an email from Campbell, informing her about a scholarship for conservative female students. She said she wasn’t sure if she could forward it to the Pink Elephants’ membership.

“I genuinely felt the need to ask Professor LeBlanc for permission because I didn’t know if I was allowed to do that,” McClain said. “I think it’s kind of silly for a 20-year-old college student to have to ask permission to send out a wonderful opportunity for women.”

Goodwin said the scholarship email wouldn’t be a problem because it doesn’t have to do with electioneering, as opposed to the election night party with Ronnie Campbell.

“As a professor of politics and as a professor of gender studies, I absolutely don’t want there to be a chilling effect on the political engagement on our women students,” LeBlanc said. “They’re not trying to break the law. In fact, they’re trying to make the world a better place.”

Goodwin said that she has frequent conversations with general counsel and administrators about ways they university can keep students both safe and supported in pursuing activism on campus.  

“Since I started at W&L in 2010, students are wanting to have more visibility about things we care about,” she said. “We’re having conversations all the time in how can we support students in terms of our activism.”

Shearer highlighted the following resources: the Answer Center under the Political Activity heading on the Office of General Counsel’s website, the American Council on Education’s publication, Political Campaign-Related Activities of and at Colleges and Universities 2016 and Revenue Ruling 2007-14.

“Students should also utilize the experience and expertise of our Student Affairs administrators who can assist in navigating issues regarding political campaign activity, issue advocacy, and campaign intervention, in addition to all other issues relating to planning events,” Shearer said.