University quietly changes controversial policy, months after telling College Republicans not to campaign for Youngkin

Washington and Lee University recently updated its political activity policy to clarify that student involvement in political activities does not violate the school’s tax-exempt status.

The change came after the Foundation for Institutional Rights in Education took action against the university after the College Republicans were barred from advocating for Glenn Youngkin.

Following an incident last semester at Washington and Lee University when the Virginia school told College Republicans that they could not campaign for now-Governor Glenn Youngkin, the institution is clarifying its stance on the issue. 

Campus Reform reported that Director of Student Activities Kelsey Goodwin barred the student group from advocating for Governor Glenn Youngkin during a Sept. 12 activity fair last fall. Goodwin claimed at the time that College Republicans' activities threatened the university's tax-exempt status. 

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Washington and Lee updated the policy Jan. 14, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports, clarifying that the action of individuals and the stance of the university are mutually exclusive. Thus, student and faculty expression does not violate tax regulations enforced through the institution's 501c(3) tax status, as was previously enforced.

“In order to maintain freedom of expression, while ensuring that the political activity of our community members will not be attributed to W&L,” the policy update prefaces. 

The text reads:

  1. Political activity by student organizations shall be governed by the Standards for Student Organizations found in the Student Handbook.
  2. Employees who desire to participate in campaign activities during their normal working hours should take personal or vacation time or leave without pay to do so.
  3. Employees can engage in off-hours political activity, but if the University is identified (i.e. "I'd like to welcome Dr. Jane Doe, Dean of the College, Washington and Lee University"), an express statement should be made by the employee that she is conveying personal opinions that are not the opinions of the University.
  4. No W&L community member (ex. employee, faculty, administrator) speaking for or on behalf of the University may advocate for or against a candidate for public office or use University resources (ex. University letterhead, secretarial, duplicating, computing, email, campus notices, etc.) to support or oppose a candidate for public office.

The 2021-2022 Student Handbook confirms that students “are not prohibited from advocating for candidates on their personal property, such as posting signage in their own room in University residence, advocating for candidates on their personal social media accounts, posting campaign stickers on their private vehicles, or wearing apparel in support of a candidate for public office.”

Campus Reform spoke with FIRE about the policy change. The free speech organization had sent a letter Sept. 23 to the university that accused the school of violating the school’s affirmation of Free Speech of Expression.

“This [new political activity policy] makes clear to administrators and staff that they cannot shut down students' core political expression and that this expression cannot endanger the university's tax-exempt status,” Program Analysis for the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Sabrina Conza told Campus Reform.

Conz also added, “This policy goes a long way in protecting students' expressive rights on Washington and Lee's campus.”

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Now, FIRE is claiming victory for the university’s actions to uphold its commitment to freedom of speech. 

“On Friday, months after FIRE’s letter and Protect the 1st’s advocacy, W&L changed its political activity policy, promising students that they may engage in political expression on campus,” FIRE wrote in its Jan. 17 announcement. 

FIRE explained the discrepancy that caused the violation and affirmed the new policy addresses clarification.

Campus Reform reached out to the College Republicans and Washington and Lee for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.

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