Political Activities and Campaigns on Campus
Swarthmore encourages members of our community to be engaged civically and to participate in the electoral process at all levels. At the same time, as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity, the College is subject to federal, state, and local laws and regulations regarding political and campaign activities. Here is some guidance on the rules faculty and staff of the College must follow regarding political activity on campus.
There are many political activities that as an institution we can allow and that faculty and staff as individuals or groups can sponsor and conduct. Generally, individuals may engage in partisan political activities as long as they do so on their own time, in their personal capacities, and without the use or support of College resources.
Political Campaigns and Candidates for Public Office
The College is prohibited, by law, from endorsing candidates for political office or making any contribution of money, goods, or services to candidates, including the use of College facilities or any other College resources. We offer guidance to help members of our College community avoid intentionally or unintentionally endorsing or contributing to political campaigns in a manner that jeopardizes the College’s nonprofit status.
Under the Internal Revenue Code, 501(c)(3) organizations cannot “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The IRC further states that “[c]ontributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or opposition to any candidate for public office violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.”
The consequences of violating this rule include the revocation of an institution’s nonprofit (tax-exempt) status and the imposition of excise taxes on the amount of money spent on the activity.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, generally, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. However, it does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies. Examples of influencing legislation include contacting, or urging the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation. Engaging in substantial amounts of lobbying activities may result in a loss of an organization’s tax-exempt status, additional filing requirements and/or excise taxes.
Organizations may engage in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, an organization may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can College resources or facilities be used for a political candidate or party?
To abide by the law, faculty and staff may not use College resources in connection with political campaign activity, which includes raising money, organizing, or otherwise supporting any outside organization or individual whose purpose is to further the cause of a candidate for public office or a political party. “College resources” is defined broadly and includes, but is not limited to, funds, supplies, printers, phones, vehicles, facilities, email networks and email addresses, and communication channels such as College “listservs” like the faculty-staff digest, College social media accounts and campus mail.
Can the College sponsor political forums or debates?
The Internal Revenue Code permits tax-exempt organizations to sponsor political forums
or debates provided they are sufficiently non-partisan in nature and are conducted for the
purpose of educating voters. All legally qualified political candidates must be invited to
such forums and be given equal access and opportunity to speak. For such forums or
debates, the following guidelines apply:
- Approval for the forum or debate must be sought from the Events Management Office at least 30 days prior to the event in order to allow sufficient review and preparation by the relevant College offices. Requests for space for such forums or debates should be made sufficiently timely to allow a meaningful invitation to all prospective participants.
- The agenda for the forum or debate should address a wide range of issues of interest to members of the College community.
- A non-partisan individual should serve as moderator.
- The moderator should state, at the beginning and the conclusion of the program, that the views expressed by the participants are their own and not those of the College, and that sponsorship of the forum is not intended as an endorsement of any particular candidate.
Can a candidate be invited to speak about topics of interest to the College community?
Faculty and staff may invite a candidate to speak in a non-candidate capacity on topics relevant to a course or otherwise of interest to students or the broader community. Still, such visits must be nonpartisan, unrelated to the visitor’s campaign for public office, and accompanied by a statement making clear the non-candidate capacity in which the candidate is appearing.
May I identify myself with my position or title when I engage in personal political activity?
When engaging in campaign activity off campus, faculty and staff need to take care not to give the impression, even inadvertently, that they are representing or expressing the views of the College. If you do decide to share your title or College position while engaging in personal political activity, you should provide a disclaimer that any statements or actions are undertaken in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Swarthmore College. Please note that when you make a donation to certain campaigns, you may be required by the campaign to provide your occupation as well as the name of your employer. These disclosures do not require use of a disclaimer.
May I engage in voter education activities on-campus?
College community members may engage in neutral, nonpartisan voter education. In fact, in February 2018, Swarthmore President Valerie Smith called for the creation of a nonpartisan committee to increase student participation in our democracy through voter registration and voting in all primary and general elections.
The Voter Registration/Get Out the Vote Steering Committee (GOTV Committee) was called to action in part in response to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), which showed that while a majority of eligible Swarthmore students register to vote, voter turnout was below or at the national average for colleges and universities.
However, faculty and staff may not use College resources to engage in voter education that favors a particular candidate or party. This includes promoting action, including voting, concerning issues that are closely associated with one or more specific candidate(s).
May student organizations host phone banks for a candidate or invite candidates to campus?
College-recognized student organizations may use available College space for phone banks (Swarthmore College phones may not be used) or speeches by political candidates, subject to approval by the Events Management Office (and subordinate to educational use of the facility or facilities), provided that such organizations pay the normal costs, if any, for such use (including any increased security costs necessitated by the invitation). Approval for any appearance by a candidate for public office or campaign representative must be sought from the Events Management Office.
Any such use of College space will require that all announcements and advertisements of the event to clearly indicate the name of the sponsoring organization and include these statements:
- Swarthmore College does not support or oppose candidates for public office.
- The opinions expressed are not those of Swarthmore College.
These statements must also be read at the beginning and end of the appearance.
May Non-College Organizations host partisan political activities in College spaces?
Organizations without affiliation with the College are ineligible to use College space to host partisan political activities.
For more information see:
- The Internal Revenue Service FAQ with detailed guidance.
- The American Council on Education has produced an issue brief with helpful information.
This policy was last updated on June 15, 2020. For questions, contact the Office of General Counsel.