This article, originally published Nov. 9, has been updated.
Alexander Atkins decided to study law to learn why things are the way they are and how they can be changed. Like many of his classmates, he was drawn to Georgetown University Law Center because it is right at the heart of the political system in Washington, at the base of Capitol Hill. He felt sure it would give him a great opportunity to engage in democracy.
That is, until he and some friends wanted to set up a table on campus to advocate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign last fall.
Atkins said he was told that partisan activity by students was prohibited because the university, as a tax-exempt organization, is not allowed under IRS rules to get involved in a campaign.
And after many months of urging law school officials to change the policy, and then clarify the revised policy — with support from a nonprofit and a congressional hearing — he felt the issue came full circle Monday, in the final hours before one of the most contentious elections in recent memory. Atkins said he was told this week that his group, again, could not advocate for a candidate in the way they had planned.
“It was certainly a painful blow,” he said, after feeling he kept being stymied by university policies he finds unnecessary and illogical. The group did find a last-minute solution and got permission to promote the candidate another way.
Universities must comply with restrictions on partisan political activity to maintain their tax-exempt status, according to IRS rules. But students are presumed to speak for themselves, not the institution, said Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, a senior program officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which wrote a letter to the law school last winter objecting to the policy and arguing it unfairly restricts students’ freedom of speech.
It is a common concern, she said, and one that the organization has raised with numerous universities.
“These are young people, this is where political speech should be happening, where political discourse should be at its most robust,” Beck-Coon said. “It’s a shame when any university does anything to dampen that.”
On Tuesday, Mitchell Bailin, dean of students, defended the school’s policy.
“Our partisan political speech policy actually does permit members of the Georgetown Law community to engage in partisan political activities with advanced approval from the Office of Student Life,” he said in a written statement. “Requests to use classroom space must be submitted to the Office of Student Life at least one week in advance of a planned activity to facilitate review and approval. The request you are referring to did not meet the one-week notice requirement, which is why it was justifiably denied.
“Unfortunately, the staff member incorrectly advised the student that classroom space cannot be used for partisan political activity, which is not the case. Had the student escalated the request to my office, I could have clarified matters and perhaps made an exception, but I’m just now learning of it.”
After reading the dean’s response, Atkins provided emails documenting that his requests and the approvals had met the deadline set by the school.
When asked about that, a spokeswoman for Georgetown responded by email: “After further review of the situation, it is clear there was a misunderstanding among staff of our policies and procedures. We are working to prevent any confusion in the future.”
This spring, Atkins was invited to speak at a congressional hearing on “protecting the free exchange of ideas on college campuses,” to tell the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee about his experiences and what he described as unsuccessful efforts to reach an understanding with Georgetown Law officials.
A few days before the hearing, Scott Fleming, the university’s associate vice president for federal relations, wrote to subcommittee members that Georgetown cherishes free speech and lively debate and that students are encouraged to express their opinions. He said that the location and academic strengths of the university give it a particular orientation toward public service and engagement in the political process, with a long history of helping students express their ideas and advocate for issues they care about.
Fleming wrote that Atkins’s request had been denied because university policies allowed only recognized student groups to organize events and “contained an overly cautious interpretation of the legal requirements governing the use of University resources” under IRS guidelines for tax-exempt organizations.
He wrote, the words underlined, “We are adjusting the policies to make very clear that individuals as well as groups are able to reserve tables for organized activity and that all members of our community are able to make reasonable use of University resources to express their political opinions.”
The university revised its policy in March, allowing students to reserve a table for partisan political activity. Atkins and others soon took advantage of that, to promote Bernie Sanders.
But Atkins said while that was an improvement, the policy is still so vague that he’s unsure whether using the university WiFi or email constitutes a violation. People must request approval for partisan activities other than “tabling.”
He and other students went through the steps to become a recognized student group — Georgetown Law Students for Democratic Reform — and sponsored events this fall. But he said after they had received permission to phone-bank for congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout on Monday night, he was surprised to get an email Monday informing him that holding that event in the classroom they had reserved would violate the policy.
Atkins said the “truly ironic and absurd thing,” was that the group was told that while the classroom use would not be allowed, they could reserve a table for the event.
So they did, he said Monday night after making calls urging people to vote for Teachout.
This post has been updated to reflect that Atkins did not miss a deadline for requesting classroom space, and the university’s response.