Political Activity at MIT

July 2019

As “election season” becomes virtually year-round, and political speech becomes louder and more strident, it is important to review some of the Do’s and Don’ts of political activity at MIT.

MIT encourages all students, faculty, staff and employees to exercise their rights and duties as citizens to participate as individuals in the electoral process. (P&P 12.7)

Federal tax law, however, prohibits tax exempt organizations such as MIT from “participat[ing] in, or intervene[ing] in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” (Internal Revenue Code, Section 501(c)(3)). The IRS provided broad guidance on this restriction in Revenue Ruling 2007-41. This memorandum discusses these limitations on political activity, describing both the general rules enunciated by the IRS as well as the specific application of those rules to a university. 

Treasury regulations define the term “candidate for public office” as an individual who offers him or herself, or is proposed by others, as a contestant for an elective public office, whether such office be national, state, or local. The regulations further provide that activities that constitute participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate include, but are not limited to, the publication or distribution of written statements or the making of oral statements on behalf of or in opposition to such a candidate.

Also according to the regulations, whether an organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case.

For example, certain “voter education” activities, including preparation and distribution of certain voter guides, conducted in a non-partisan manner may not constitute prohibited political activities under section 501(c)(3) of the Code.  Other so-called “voter education” activities may be proscribed by the statute.

The hosting of public forums or debates is a recognized method of educating the public. IRS Revenue Ruling 66-256 holds that a nonprofit organization formed to conduct public forums at which lectures and debates on social, political, and international matters are presented qualifies for exemption from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3). Providing a forum for candidates is thus not, in and of itself, prohibited political activity.

However, a forum for candidates could be operated in a manner that would show a bias or preference for or against a particular candidate. This could be done, for example, through biased questioning procedures. On the other hand, a forum held for the purpose of educating and informing the voters, which provides fair and impartial treatment of candidates, and which does not promote or advance one candidate over another, would not constitute participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

The political campaign intervention prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals.  Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.

Depending on the facts and circumstances, an MIT club or other organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing MIT’s tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or in their individual capacity (not as a candidate).  Candidates may also appear without an invitation at organization events that are open to the public.

When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event in his or her capacity as a political candidate, factors in determining whether the organization participated or intervened in a political campaign include the following:

  • Whether the organization provides an equal opportunity to participate to political candidates seeking the same office;
  • Whether the organization indicates any support for or opposition to the candidate (including candidate introductions and communications concerning the candidate’s attendance); and
  • Whether any political fundraising occurs.

Example A

In the month prior to the election, a section 501(c)(3) organization invites the three Congressional candidates for the district in which the organization is located to address the members, one each at a regular meeting held on three successive weeks. Each candidate is given an equal opportunity to address and field questions on a wide variety of topics from the members of the organization. The organization’s publicity announcing the dates for each of the candidate’s speeches and the introduction of each candidate include no comments on their qualifications or any indication of a preference for any candidate.

Candidates may also appear or speak at organization events in a non-candidate capacity.  For instance, a political candidate may be a public figure who is invited to speak because he or she:

  1. currently holds, or formerly held, public office;
  2. is considered an expert in a non-political field; or
  3. is a celebrity or has led a distinguished military, legal, or public service career.

However, if the candidate is invited to speak, factors in determining whether the candidate’s appearance results in political campaign intervention include the following:

  • Whether the individual is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than candidacy for public office.
  • Whether the individual speaks only in a non-candidate capacity;
  • Whether either the individual or any representative of the organization makes any mention of his or her candidacy or the election;

Example B

A university is a section 501(c)(3) organization. The university publishes an alumni newsletter on a regular basis. Individual alumni are invited to send in updates about themselves which are printed in each edition of the newsletter. After receiving an update letter from Alumnus Q, the university prints the following:  “Alumnus Q, class of ‘XX is running for mayor of Metropolis.” The newsletter does not contain any reference to this election or to Alumnus Q’s candidacy other than this statement of fact.

If an organization posts something on its web site that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate. Links to candidate-related material on the organization’s website, by themselves, do not necessarily constitute political campaign intervention. All the facts and circumstances must be taken into account when assessing whether a link produces that result. The facts and circumstances to be considered include, but are not limited to, the context for the link on the organization’s web site, whether all candidates are represented, any tax-exempt purpose served by offering the link, and the directness of the links between the organization’s web site and the web page that contains material favoring or opposing a candidate for public office.

University-Related Guidance

Two IRS revenue rulings address specifically whether political campaign intervention has occurred in a university setting. 

In Revenue Ruling 72-512, the IRS held that a political science course, one component of which required students to participate in political campaigns, did not result in impermissible political campaign intervention. The university did not influence the students’ choice of candidates, it did not control the students’ campaign work, and it was reimbursed or paid for any services or facilities provided to the students for use in connection with the campaigns. The IRS indicated that where the extent and manner of the students’ political campaign activities was “reasonably germane to the course of instruction,” the university was not considered a party to the expression of the individual students’ political views in their course-related campaign activities, even though the course was part of the university’s curriculum and university personnel and facilities were used for the course.

In Revenue Ruling 72-513, the IRS held that a university did not engage in political campaign intervention as a result of editorials in a student newspaper that took positions on specific legislation and candidates for public office. While the university made faculty advisors available to newspaper staff, the faculty advisors and university administration exercised no control or direction over the newspaper’s editorial policy. The ruling noted that a disclaimer on the editorial pages indicated the views expressed were those of the students and not of the university. The IRS indicated that the university’s furnishing of faculty advisors and physical facilities to the student newspaper did not make the students’ political expressions acts of the university, since these expressions were those of the students participating in the university’s academic programs and academic-related functions.

Conclusion

As noted at the outset, MIT encourages political engagement on the part of its students, faculty, staff and employees.  While MIT, as a tax exempt organization, is prohibited from direct political engagement, it can serve as a forum for political discussion and candidate appearances if the basic precautions described above, including section 12.7 of MIT’s Policy and Procedures, are followed.