U.’s tax policy may keep politicos away

By
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An especially strict interpretation of the federal tax code may be to blame for the dearth of political campaign events on campus, according to students and a University spokesman.

As a tax-exempt nonprofit organization recognized under the Internal Revenue Code, Brown is prohibited from participating or intervening in political campaigns. But Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relations Michael Chapman said the “antiquated” policy in place to protect the University – which explicitly forbids any use of campus facilities to further a political cause – “was drafted pretty narrowly.” The University may revise its policy in time for the presidential election in November, Chapman said.

The restrictive policy has already caused the last-minute rescheduling of one campus event and may have deterred other appearances by presidential candidates and their surrogates, who seem to have skipped over Brown in their state-wide college tours. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., both made appearances last week at Rhode Island College, and their spouses have spoken at other Rhode Island schools – former President Bill Clinton held a rally at Bryant University and Michelle Obama spoke at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee both spoke at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick.

Meanwhile, not one representative from the Democratic or Republican presidential field has appeared on campus.

“Brown is enforcing this more strictly than any school I’ve heard of,” said Max Chaiken ’09, chapter coordinator of Students for Barack Obama and a Herald opinions columnist. “Other schools in the country – even in the state – don’t enforce it as strictly as Brown does.”

Chaiken said the policy has profoundly limited his group’s ability to support its candidate. A recent event the group organized – a discussion session with actor, University of Pennsylvania visiting professor and vocal Obama supporter Kal Penn – had to be moved from Alumnae Hall to Thayer Street’s Blue State Coffee after facing resistance from the Student Activities Office, he said.

Caleb Weaver, Rhode Island communications director for the Obama campaign, said the venue change, which occurred the night before the event, was “motivated by Brown’s policies.”

“After looking at what the policies were about having political events on campus, it was determined that it was an easier option to move it to the coffee house nearby,” Weaver said, adding that an on-campus location would have been preferred.

Chaiken criticized Brown’s last-minute veto, citing Penn’s appearances at other Rhode Island colleges as evidence that hosting the actor would not have jeopardized the University’s tax-exempt status.

“Kal Penn made appearances at Bryant University, at URI, at CCRI,” Chaiken said, “and none of them had a problem hosting him.”

Equal access for all candidates does not mean free access, Chapman said, pointing out that Penn would have been allowed to speak on campus had Students for Barack Obama paid the $200 rental fee that any candidate or surrogate would have been charged.

“To avoid any perception that we are endorsing the candidate, we must rent out the room,” Chapman said. “They definitely were not pushed out.”

Tom Dougan, vice president for student affairs at URI, said the university’s policy on inviting speakers was less restrictive but still within the IRS guidelines, which prohibit organizations like Brown and URI from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS Web site.

“By allowing a candidate to speak at our campus, we don’t feel as an institution that we are endorsing him or her,” Dougan said. “We are providing a forum, and that’s always been our interpretation.”

Dougan added that hosting political candidates and surrogates on campus positively influences students to be politically minded. “It’s great for students to get very actively involved in the political process,” he said. “Having political speakers here certainly encourages them to do that.”

Not all recent campaign events held off-campus have been there as a result of the restrictive policy. Though Chelsea Clinton stumped for her mother last week at Viva Bar on Thayer Street, a campaign spokeswoman said the younger Clinton preferred the off-campus venue.

“Chelsea’s been holding events at young people hangout spots,” said Jennifer Bramley, deputy communications director for the Clinton campaign in Rhode Island. “We did want to be in that area and ended up at Viva, which we know is a gathering place for different people from Brown and outside.”

Still, Chaiken and other politically active students said the University’s resistance to political events is nothing new. Craig Auster ’08, who co-chairs Brown Students for Hillary, recalled difficulties a year ago when his group sought to invite former Democratic National Committee chair and senior Clinton adviser Terry McAuliffe to campus.

“The only way he was allowed to come was if the Brown Democrats sponsored the event and he remained completely neutral,” Auster said. “He wasn’t even allowed to mention the candidates by name.” McAuliffe did speak to the Democrats in List 120, but did not stump for Clinton in his speech.

Auster shared Chaiken’s view of the policy, calling it “a disservice to the students and the Brown community as a whole.”

Marc Frank ’09, president of the Brown College Republicans, also expressed confusion and frustration with the University’s policy. Though he said McCain’s success on Super Tuesday obviated the need for an on-campus rally, Frank said he had Brown’s policy in mind when he advised Huckabee’s campaign to hold its rally off of College Hill.

“The Huckabee campaign called us last week asking if they could hold their rally at Brown,” he said. “I know that it’s against Brown’s policies so I told them it would be better to hold it elsewhere.”

Though the policy didn’t affect his group too harshly, Frank said he thinks it is ill-founded. “They claim that legally they’re required to do that, but that doesn’t make sense to me because if you watch CNN, the debates are almost always at a college,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a bogus policy.”

Chapman said the University has recognized the shortcomings of the policy, which states that “University facilities and services may not be used by or on behalf of an outside organization or outside individual whose purpose is to further the cause of a candidate or political party.” In response, Chapman said he and other University officials are looking to revise the policy to make it “more balanced” in time for the general election this fall.

“We’re revising those rules so we can stay in the IRS’s guidelines for 501(c)(3) organizations and give Brown students and the community the ability to hear from political candidates running for office,” he said, adding that the revisions will be released “in the near future.”

In the meantime, Chapman said the University will operate on a “guiding principle” that should allow political candidates to speak on campus.

“We want to treat all candidates the same and give them equal access to campus facilities,” he said.

Chapman said the University has already applied the guiding principle, offering Barack Obama a chance to speak in the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center after a request from his campaign.

“He wanted a bigger venue” than the OMAC, Chapman said. “But if Senator Hillary Clinton wanted to come to Brown, we would make the OMAC available to her.”

Though Chapman maintained that a change has been made in attitude if not in official policy, Chaiken told The Herald that the University’s actions aren’t always in line with the new principle.

“I haven’t seen evidence of that principle,” Chaiken said. “We moved Kal Penn off campus because the University cal
led and said we could rent the room or move it off campus. My experience with the University has not been eased by this guiding principle, if it exists.”

Chapman emphasized that the new policy will be more accommodating than the old one, which he said was “narrowly tailored.”

“The goal is to abide by the IRS rules,” he said, “while at the same time trying to make it as easy as possible for the Brown community to hear from political candidates.”