EXCLUSIVE: Students flout tax rules to help Hillary
Students for Hillary chapters across the nation have flouted their schools’ tax-exempt statuses by using university resources to promote their candidate, an investigation conducted by Campus Reform reveals.
Last week, Campus Reform reported that the University of Chicago’s Students for Hillary chapter had repeatedly reserved rooms in the school’s library to phone bank for Hillary, a practice expressly forbidden by the school as a potentially fatal threat to its tax-exempt status.
Now, Campus Reform has discovered that several other pro-Hillary student groups have adopted similar practices which tend to violate school policy and, in many cases, have put the tax-exempt statuses of prestigious institutions like Columbia and Harvard in jeopardy.
At Columbia, for instance, Students for Hillary planned a phone bank for Tuesday evening in Hamilton Hall, an academic building on campus, even though Columbia policy notes that when engaging in partisan political activity “aimed outside the University community, they [student groups] may not utilize university space for such activities, but instead must conduct all such activities off campus.”
A spokesperson for Columbia confirmed with Campus Reform that the university’s designation as a tax-exempt organization prohibits it from “participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office,” but said the school has “no additional information or comment” on the matter.
Meanwhile, at Emory University, Students for Hillary phone banked in university classrooms on at least four separate occasions in Callaway Center and Carlos Hall—both on-campus academic facilities—including one event in January, 2016 and two others as recently as October 13 and 14 of this year.
Again, school policy regarding lobbying and political activity states that “it is very important that they do so only in their individual capacities and avoid even the appearance that they are speaking or acting for the University in political matters.”
Campus Reform’s inquiry revealed that the club’s name, Emory University Students for Hillary, as well as their use of university resources, was a clear violation of this policy, as it blurred the line between individual speech and speech on behalf of the university.
“‘Emory University Students for Hillary’ is not an official student group,” an Emory spokesperson confirmed. “We have notified the group to change their name accordingly, and have informed them they cannot use university facilities for phone banking.”
Notably, the chapter has since scrubbed two posts about previous phone banks from its Facebook wall, including an advertisement for two phone banks that were held last week, and later changed its name to “Students for Hillary at Emory University.”
Similarly, the Students for Hillary chapter at the University of Pittsburgh held a phone bank in a university building in April in celebration of “the anniversary of Madame Secretary entering the race.”
At the time, the school’s policy strictly prohibited the use of “university funds, facilities, or services” for “any participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office, except as provided below.”
However, the exceptions “provided below” only allow for “leafleting in approved locations and the invitation of speakers,” noting that “all other kinds of political activities on campus, including rallies, are prohibited.”
Pitt’s policy on campaign activity has since been revised to allow for looser restrictions on using university facilities for political activity, but the revisions did not come until August, some four months after the phone bank took place, meaning the school’s old policy was still in effect at the time of the phone bank.
In fact, just days after the initial phone bank, Pitt published a “Q&A for Registered Student Organizations on Political Campaign Activity,” in which it explicitly states that student groups are “expected to observe” the older version of the policy.
Nonetheless, Pitt’s Director of University News, Joe Miksch, insisted that “our policy—both the 1989 iteration and the newer Q&A you cite—permits the use of university facilities for activities such as phone banking, provided that students do not represent their position as that of the university.”
Yale Students for Hillary, meanwhile, conducted a phone bank in a university building during which members used personal laptops connected to the school’s internet, a violation of the school’s ban on using “IT services” to participate in campaign activity.
The Yale University chapter also broke school policy by using the university’s name in the club’s title, since, according to Yale policy, students may not use Yale’s name in connection with any “communication (e.g., canvassing, letters, emails, telephone calls, listservs, websites, solicitations, etc.) involving campaign activity.”
Princeton University, another member of the elite Ivy League, has also had a Students for Hillary group skirt the rules.
The Princeton chapter prefaced its October 12 phone bank by asking if fellow students are “angry about Trump's sexist/racist/xenophobic/islamophobic/etc. comments,” explaining that in order to “do something about it,” the group would be meeting in a university classroom to phone bank.
However, Princeton policy states that “the university may not endorse, or provide or solicit financial or other support for, candidates or political organizations. These prohibitions apply as well to campus-based organizations.”
Additionally, “internet access,” which is almost universally required for phone banks, may only be used “to serve the educational, research, and administrative needs of the university.”
Finally, groups that use the Princeton name must “make it clear that when expressing political views they are speaking only for themselves,” a policy that Princeton reiterated in an email exchange with Campus Reform, writing that the school was “looking into the issue” but would not comment on “any potential disciplinary matters involving students.”
In yet another instance, at the University of Michigan, students phone banked in a university building with a Democratic congressional candidate, Debbie Dingell, whom the club touted for her recent endorsement of Secretary Clinton.
In fact, a self-described Hillary staffer later explained that as “part of the staff here in Michigan with Hillary Clinton’s campaign” he was proud to introduce “one of our first phone banks with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell who has endorsed Hillary Clinton.”
Several other Students for Hillary chapters at prestigious schools such as Harvard and Cornell have also been caught phone banking with university resources.
At Harvard, the undergraduate Students for Hillary club went on a phone banking spree, organizing at least 15 different events between September 2015 and December 2015, while the graduate school version of the club completed at least two phone banks, one as recently as October 26, which ironically took place in the Lewis Law Center.
Harvard includes a section on the Law School website on Campaign & Political Activity, which references the 501(c)(3) code that states the university may not participate in partisan campaign activity either directly or indirectly.
Furthermore, unrecognized organizations are “not permitted to conduct any activity at Harvard even though their activities involve Harvard undergraduates,” and student groups must also specifically request approval to use the trademarked Harvard name.
Of the nearly 30 Students for Hillary chapters that Campus Reform has contacted, none have responded to a request for comment. Campus Reform also reached out to the Clinton campaign for a comment on the widespread use of school facilities for campaign activities, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
All of the schools cited in this report are classified as tax-exempt institutions, meaning any campaign activities using university facilities could threaten the university’s tax status, according to IRS guidelines.
Follow the authors of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski and @amber_athey