Luke Smith (fr) obtained permission on behalf of a political campaign to rent facilities on Indiana Wesleyan University’s Marion campus last month but, in order to preserve the school’s political neutrality, was denied permission to advertise the event on campus, according to Smith’s report, which has been confirmed by key administrators.
David McIntosh is one of eight candidates running in the Republican primary for Indiana’s 5th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Smith, an intern on McIntosh’s campaign, helped organize a meet-and-greet reception on IWU’s campus Feb. 20.
Smith obtained permission from residence hall staff to hang advertisements for the event in dormitories. But when he requested permission to hang the same posters in the Barnes Student Center, his request was denied, and resident directors in the residence halls were instructed by email to remove the posters that had already been hung in the residential lobbies, according to Smith.
“We hoped the administration would allow fliers in the Student Center because it could be educational for the student body,” said Smith, declining to disclose which administrators made the decision.
Smith said he was informed approximately one week prior to the Feb. 20 event that advertising would not be allowed. The unused fliers were inexpensive black-and-white copies made in the Jackson Library, so the financial impact of the decision was insignificant, according to Smith, though he believes attendance at the event was hurt by the decision.
Keith Brakel, director of conference services at IWU, is responsible for approving advertisements to be posted in the Student Center, with the chain of command going “up through student development” from there, according to Lori Haisley, conference services event and schedule systems coordinator.
Brakel said he consulted with his superiors before handing down the final decision.
“In an effort to apply these policies fairly, based upon previous experience, the decision was made not to allow advertising,” said Brakel, citing two separate clauses in IWU’s political policies as the basis for the two decisions made by conferences services.
One policy specifically allows IWU to rent out facilities to political candidates, while a broader prohibition of any political endorsement led the administration to disallow advertising of the event on campus, according to Brakel, who provied The Sojourn with copies of the two written policies under which the university operates currently.
The first policy, from IWU’s student organization policy manual, seeks to protect the university’s status as a nonprofit organization and cites the U.S. Internal Revenue Code as the legal impetus for its approach to political events:
“In accordance with the University’s 501(c)3 status, University resources may not be used to ‘participate or intervene, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.’ In this context, ‘University resources’ is construed broadly and includes, but is not limited to, funding, facility use, web pages, and transportation,” states a portion of the policy.
Brakel also furnished a written interpretation of the policy that was handed down to conference services personnel to aid in interpreting the applicable laws.
“Indiana Wesleyan University maintains a neutral position as it relates to political parties, candidates, and elected officials,” states a portion of the conference services policy document. “While canvassing campus and soliciting votes are never approved, a political party, candidate or elected official may request the use of campus facilities for a meeting, gathering or public debate. Such meetings and gatherings may not use the name of Indiana Wesleyan University or utilize images, logos, or representations of the campus in such a way as to construe endorsement of a party, candidate, or elected official. If approved, facilities are provided through Conference Services at the standard rental rates.”
Brakel said these policies specifically allow IWU to rent its resources to political groups while generally prohibiting all forms of political endorsement, whether implicit or explicit. According to Brakel, these two separate clauses prompted the decision to allow McIntosh’s event on campus while simultaneously prohibiting its advertisement.
Dr. Jon Conrad, professor of political science at IWU, serves as Smith’s internship supervisor and said he was alarmed upon hearing of the decision.
“I don’t think there’s any malice intended,” said Conrad. “I think you have people who are just interpreting as best as they can. Here’s a policy, and they’re trying to avoid legal issues, but in doing so they can actually create some for the institution because, if you unfairly abridge students’ free speech, you run into just as many issues as if the university were to endorse a political candidate.”
Conrad said he has been frustrated at times by IWU’s lack of in-house lawyers since the university’s legal department was disbanded in 2009.
“There are sometimes issues that come up that you really need legal counsel, and this is one of them. It’s a free-speech issue. It’s dealing with the IRS and the not-for-profit status. Those are legal issues,” said Conrad. “So professors can have opinions, and administrators will make decisions on policy, but the question is: ‘Is any of this legal?’ Because that’s really the question: ‘Are we operating within the framework of the law? Are we unduly infringing on the rights of students?’ We shouldn’t be.”
The key issue here, according to Conrad, is not whether or not political discourse should take place on the campuses of private universities but, instead, to what extent student activity implies official university assent to one cause or another.
“I think this situation may be reflective of probably just a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of what an institution can do versus what a student can do because there are certain limitations and restrictions on the university as a nonprofit,” said Conrad.
Neil Rush, director of risk management and compliance at IWU, said: “This one we really don’t even need legal guidance on. For one, IRS code is pretty clear in this regard, so there’s not a whole lot of interpretation we have to do.”
Brakel consulted with Rush prior to the decision to disallow Smith’s political advertisements. Brakel and Rush agree with Conrad’s assertion that certain political limitations must be observed by tax-exempt organizations, but they disagree with Conrad in terms of how the policies should be implemented in cases like the one at hand.
“I don’t think anybody wants to take away the right for students to voice their opinions, talk about different ideas, talk about politics by any means. Nobody wants to squash that,” said Rush. “I don’t think anybody wants to be so restrictive that we are removing political dialogue. I think that’s extremely important on campus, but we’re basically talking about university endorsements here.”
“We encourage free thought, and we want people to be able to have open, honest dialogue about political ideas, so there’s no intent in the policy at all to restrict that for students,” Rush added. “These are just administrative parameters to protect the university from violating our 501(c)3 exemptions.”
“We don’t have any issues here at the university if there is a nonpartisan effort to ‘get out the vote’ or voter registration efforts, but to actually endorse a candidate and put their materials throughout campus, distributing their literature, unless we’re doing that for everybody, that’s a prohibited practice here,” said Rush.
“Just the fact that those posters may be up in some of the residence halls could be perceived as an endorsement of that candidate by the university,” Rush added.
“The second we start letting political fliers and posters go up across campus, even if a student puts that up, because we have to provide equal access, that means anything goes. Some ideologies that are completely incongruous with Wesleyan thought could go up there. There could be some posters, depending on the position of the candidate, could be interpreted as hate speech, using the David Duke example again,” Rush said, referencing the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who served in the Louisiana state House of Representatives from 1990 to 1992 and has been politically active on an international stage to some extent in recent years.
“Our faith should not be so weak that it cannot stand up against the likes of Marx and any other non-Christian philosopher,” said Conrad, who believes the student population at IWU is not suffering the ill effects of political extremism but of political apathy.
“I’m really concerned about the almost emptiness that we have on campus regarding any sort of political voices. I think our students – and no disrespect to any of them – are already politically disconnected,” said Conrad, noting that the issue at hand was a question of free speech but, more significantly, a question of how state and institutional policies interact.
“Fundamentally this is a legal issue, and some of these things need to be decided by attorneys who know the law better than any of us,” said Conrad. “And that helps students, and it helps administrators to know, ‘What are the boundaries?’ Because that’s what they’re looking for.”
Rush said he is aware of IWU faculty and staff members who want a more clearly interpreted set of guidelines to avoid future conflict.
“I think there’s a lot of people right now that are very anxious to have some additional guidance, so I think there’ll probably be something within the next couple of weeks,” said Rush. “It really just depends on the availability of the parties that do the approving.”
Regarding David McIntosh’s attempt to network with IWU students, Smith said the on-campus advertising prohibition left the campaign’s Facebook page, “Students for David McIntosh,” as the best means of communication between McIntosh and university students.