Politically Partisan Speech on University Campuses

03/30/2017 11:47 am ET

Throughout American history, institutions of higher education have been safe havens for public discourse. For generations our campuses have hosted countless speeches, rallies, protests, and demonstrations, empowering students to voice their opinions and concerns about the news of the day. Indeed, colleges and universities have emboldened young leaders to exercise their rights as citizens of this great country to speak up and be heard.

Since the inauguration of President Trump, our institutions have been abuzz with deeply emotional conversations about his policies and rhetoric. Like other colleges and universities, Simmons administrators, faculty, and students have been engaging in conversation, and in some cases demonstration, as we have observed a dramatic shift in policy and communication style in the White House.

I believe academia fulfills its critical role in society when it provides an environment of openness to, and respect for, individuals and ideas of all sorts and when it guarantees a free and unfettered exchange of those ideas. At its institutional core, a college or university is a forum for ideas, not an advocate for a particular view. In order to facilitate and encourage inquiry and debate, a university — as an institution — must remain neutral.

It is this neutrality that is at stake with President Trump’s recent vow to repeal, or, in his words, to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Enacted into law as part of the Internal Revenue Code in 1954 after then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson proposed it, the amendment prohibits all 501(c)(3) (non-profit) institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates. For more than a half-century, the Johnson Amendment has barred schools, churches, and other tax-exempt non-profit organizations from donating to, or publicly endorsing political campaigns. The amendment has served to insulate organizations like ours from becoming de facto political PACs, accepting tax-deductible donations from our community members to support particular candidates.

But more than that, the Johnson Amendment has served as protection against political backlash from lawmakers who hold the purse strings. It has protected the very free speech upon which our nation’s founding fathers constructed our democracy, and which is protected by the First Amendment.

If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, it is easy to envision a university who endorsed a losing presidential, gubernatorial, or mayoral candidate fall prey to vindictive politicians who win seats of power. On our campus, no less than $80 million of federal student aid may be at stake. And for what? To provide another source of funds to a political election system that has already ballooned into a billion-dollar quasi industry during election season?

The value to our nation of providing a place where ideas can be pursued without fear of repression or retaliation is acknowledged and promoted in our privileged tax status. The millions of dollars our institutions save by not having to pay taxes are being invested where they should be: in our academic programs, our technology, our facilities, for the wages of millions of working Americans, and to prepare the next generation of the American workforce. But our right to these exemptions is sensibly tied to an obligation to abstain from partisan politics.

I believe that to abandon our institutional commitment to neutrality would be to abandon the very essence of the academy. As one student recently observed in an editorial in The Voice, the Simmons College student newspaper, “We are strengthened by our diversity and united by our common drive to lead positive change in the world.” It is now up to us to ensure students like these continue to voice their opinions, and that America’s institutions of higher education remain free from political partisanship to empower them to do so.

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