Last week’s e-mail regarding the need to obtain administration permission before scheduling any political event or activity left some students wondering as to the purpose of the warning.
“There’s an election going on,” said Dean of the College Larry Breitborde. “It’s really because the elections are going on and we’ve had some questions from students and faculty. We don’t send it every year.”
To retain its tax-exempt status, Knox is required to follow federal regulations in regards to its political activities. These regulations extend to the actions of students and faculty, who are prevented from doing things such as campaigning for a specific party using college resources. Beyond outright donations, however, the line of what is allowed and what is not is less clear.
Knox follows political guidelines developed by the American Council on Education. Written specifically for colleges and universities and with the understanding that political activity and discourse is a crucial part of such institutions, the recommendations attempt to spell out specifically what is and what is not allowed. Employees can campaign for candidates on their own time but cannot use any college resources to do so; even making calls from a college phone would be considered a violation of this rule. A student club or organization is allowed to engage in political activities or poster campaigns within campus but could not hang a large banner facing streets on the side of their dorm buildings, which would be considered using college property for political advertisement.
“Complications have come [up],” Breitborde said. “It’s easy to state the rule—that non-profits aren’t supposed to engage in partisan political activities—but then when you get down to individual events you often have to look at them one at a time.”
Upon receiving Breitborde’s e-mails, some students thought it may have been in response to the counter-protest the Alliance for Peaceful Action (APA) staged in response to a local Tea Party rally. Breitborde dispelled these rumors, saying a Galesburg resident had heard of the intent to protest before the rally and called to discuss it with the college—but afterwards called back and commended the college on the peaceful activism of its students.
“We ended up making Knox look really good,” said senior Rosie Worthen, an officer for APA.
Breitborde emphasized that students were encouraged to be politically active as individuals. He said attending a rally off campus “is their business … what we’re really doing is just asking people to be safe because there’s risk to the institution.”
Although neither Worthen nor her fellow APA officer senior Abraham Diekhans-Mears foresaw any problems with their organization’s activities being limited, they did express concern over a too-conservative reading of the guidelines.
“I don’t want that to be like a Patriot Act for Knox students,” Diekhans-Mears said, who voiced concern that the very broad statements could be used to limit or even shut down a club’s political activities.
Breitborde did acknowledge a worry about possibly making students cautious of the political process.
“I worry about it,” he said. “Whenever you start a process and create restraints…it can lead to people disengaging instead of engaging.”
Overall, however, Breitborde remained hopeful that political activity within the guidelines would continue at Knox.
“That’s how this place was established—by activists,” he said. “That’s not just an empty tradition. There are constraints that are placed but I hope everyone takes pride in what we do.”