University, SAC Misaligned Over Endorsement Policy

FILE PHOTO: MICHELLE XU/THE HOYA The university has given contradicting direction on student club’s right to endorse.

FILE PHOTO: MICHELLE XU/THE HOYA
The university has given contradicting direction on student club’s right to endorse.

With 55 days to go until the Nov. 8 general election, the university’s stance on political endorsements has come under the spotlight for its ambiguity; while the Student Activities Commission has stated that no student groups are able to publically endorse presidential candidates, official university policy allows such student group endorsements.

Student representatives with Georgetown University College Republicans said it has not endorsed in current and past election cycles because of the university’s nonprofit status. A representative from Georgetown University College Democrats said it is endorsing democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, Georgetown is unable to endorse political candidates.

However, official university policy indicates that student groups are able to endorse political candidates. Senior Director for Strategic Communications Rachel Pugh said the university expects student political organizations to endorse their party’s candidates and organize activities to support them, so long as the students or student organizations make it clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the university.

“Student political groups can endorse candidates, but it must be clear that it is them and not the university because of our tax-exempt status,” Pugh wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We recognize that student political groups are political and do not restrict the College Democrats and College Republicans (and other recognizedstudent political groups that have access to SAC funding) from using the funds that are available for political campaign activities.”

University policy states that individual students and student political groups can actively engage in campaign activity. Students and student political groups can also conduct nonpartisan and noncandidate-specific voter education or voter registration activities, invite candidates or surrogates to speak on campus — as long as roughly equivalent opportunities are provided for all legitimate candidates — distribute campaign materials in Red Square or other approved locations and use university funds for incidental expenses relating to group political campaign activities, including travel.

These rules apply only to organizations that receive funding from SAC, which does not include candidate-specific student political groups such as Hoyas for Hillary. Hoyas for Hillary’s campaigning trips to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in the spring were organized through Hillary for America, while the participating members funded another trip to Iowa last January.

According to the student organization standards set by the Division of Student Affairs, student activity fees and other university resources cannot go directly to funding partisan political campaigns.

The interpretation presented to clubs, however, is unclear. SAC Chair Brian Philipps (SFS ’18) said clubs are unable to support political groups for the sake of preserving Georgetown’s status as a nonprofit. This is the second election cycle in which SAC has reinforced this interpretation of the CSE policy.

“So as not to put Georgetown’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy, official university student groups are prohibited from actively campaigning for political causes or using university money to do so,” Philipps wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This includes all SAC groups.”

According to Director of the Center for Student Engagement Erika Cohen-Derr, while university funds allocated for students cannot go directly as a donation toward any political entities, once student groups receive the funding, trips to campaign for candidates are one way in which they can choose to spend it.

“The university has the mission to support students’ political and civic engagement, and one of the ways it does that is by actively supporting student groups who engage in political activity through funding for their activities,” Cohen-Derr wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As these groups receive funding from their advisory board, they may seek to spend it on travel for campaign trips or flyers to recruit other students to join their group.”

“During an election year, student political organizations often use that money to show support for their party’s candidate,” Cohen-Derr wrote.

“My understanding, from talking to leaders in those groups is they have a practice, not a policy, that they don’t endorse in the primary season but that they fulfill their responsibility to generate discussion and raise awareness around that political viewpoint,” Cohen-Derr wrote. “It wouldn’t surprise anyone for the College Democrats to endorse Hillary Clinton or for the College Republicans to endorse Donald Trump. That’s what those groups do.”

The university’s stance on political endorsements has evolved over the past several years. Prior to the student activity fee program established for the 2011-12 school year that enabled increased funding for student groups, SAC was more restrictive about its funding processes and allocated less funding for student political groups, particularly during the 2008 election cycle. As a result of this, SAC restricted the ability for student groups to travel in an effort to be fair to all student groups.

Student political groups at other private universities have endorsed political candidates this election cycle. The Harvard Republican Club published a letter rebuking Trump’s candidacy, while the Yale College Republicans endorsed Trump. The Yale endorsement led to the creation of a new Republican political group on campus, the Yale New Republicans.

Former SAC Chair Patrick Musgrave declined to comment on SAC policy during previous election cycles.

Hoya Staff Writer Christian Paz contributed reporting.

Correction: This article previously misspelled Brian Philipps (SFS ’18) name as Brian Phillips in the article.

Clarification: Philipps wrote in an email to The Hoya that SAC’s policy is in line with current CSE guidelines and that SAC enforces university policy – and does not have its own policy – before the article was printed. 

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