Nonprofit U.S. colleges and universities must follow a wide range of federal rules and regulations to preserve their tax-exempt status. In this and every election year, rules governing political activity on campus should be top of mind.
ACE’s memo on Political Campaign-Related Activities of and at Colleges and Universities can help campus administrators, faculty and staff learn more about the appropriate ways to become involved in elections, whether hosting an event or volunteering for a campaign. Divided into institutional and individual political activities, it gives concrete examples of what is and is not acceptable practice.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidance on political activity at 501(c)(3) entities—which includes nonprofit higher education institutions—states that these institutions “may not participate in, or intervene in…any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The IRS language is broad enough to cover an array of circumstances. And because there are no bright dividing lines in the rule, potential violations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The IRS isn’t the only entity with rules about political activity on campus. State law may impose other restrictions on political activity related to state or local campaigns. It’s best to seek out the advice of the institution’s legal counsel before engaging in any political activity.