In Election Season, Emails Prompt Administrative Response
LBIS: The College must monitor student use of resources in order to maintain its tax-exempt status.
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Vice President for Library and Information Services Ron Griggs reminded community members of the restrictions to sharing political information through Kenyon channels in light of the upcoming election in a student-info email sent on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
Griggs said that in order to maintain a tax-exempt status as a non-profit organization, Kenyon must adhere to certain rules regarding political activism on campus. In part, the email read, “You might think that the [all-employee] and [all-student] mailing lists are unofficial, so a person is communicating as a private person, but since they use the institution’s resources the tax law limits still apply.”
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that non-profit organizations are prohibited from directly or indirectly advocating either for or against a specific candidate. “Students probably think ‘well, I can say anything, pretty much, in an allstu,’” Griggs said. “And that’s the way it was actually designed … the caveat being that you have to follow the same rules that we follow in all of our communications with each other.”
Griggs is more interested in monitoring activity using Kenyon resources than with the ramifications of the law. “The IRS is looking for political activity, and political activity isn’t usually defined as one person talking to another,” Griggs said. “The intent [of the law] is political activity, which is public campaigning. The activities we’re concerned about are activities that involve mass communications.”
The IRS, however, defines political activity as “any and all activities that favor or oppose one or more candidates for public office.” It gives specific and unyielding examples, and includes regulations for state fairs, phone banks and the publication of editorials.
In theory, these rules would require that everything from library printers to campus meeting rooms remain non-partisan. No partisan document could be copied on a Kenyon copier, and all personal emails sent via the Kenyon system would have to include a disclaimer that the enclosed opinions are those of the sender and not of the College. “We’re not trying to be preventative,” Griggs said. “We can’t be preventative without putting in place controls that would be really onerous and negative for the institution and its primary mission.”
If there were no restrictions on political activity, a non-profit organization — be it a school, church or hospital — could be perceived as using members to promote their political agenda, according to Griggs.
“Organizations are granted non-profit status because they benefit the people of the United States in a certain way,” he said. “Because we have these special privileges, in a sense we’re being subsidized.”
Some discrepancies exist between how to define a representative of an organization and whether these regulations matter for those who do not officially represent an organization. A 2011 memo issued by the American Council on Education lists prohibited activities for tax-exempt organizations.The memo, titled “Political Campaign-Related Activities of and at Colleges and Universities,” indicates that using an organization’s resources is only restricted for its representatives.
“The law looks at residential colleges in two ways,” Griggs said. “Is this where you live, is this your home? Are these the home resources that you have, or is this the institution?” In cases where students are not considered representatives of the institution, use of the College’s resources would not be restricted. “I think what happens is that sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other,” Griggs said. “The guideline for me is sort of the reasonable person guideline. How would a reasonable person interpret that?”
There is no reason to expect an IRS investigation into Kenyon unless an official complaint is filed, bringing attention to any violation of tax law. The long-term consequences of such an investigation could result in the loss of Kenyon’s non-profit status.
“Our goal is just not to make a misstep, not to do something that inadvertently causes undue attention to the institution. We don’t really want to lose our tax exempt status,” Griggs said. “If we had to pay taxes on all tuition, that would be millions and millions of dollars. It would be an unmitigated disaster.”
Lauren Toole contributed reporting.