Political Activity


Saint Mary’s is committed to open discussion and dialogue on campus and the exchange of ideas and opinions.  However, due to its status as a non-profit, institution of higher education which is subject to the regulations of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Saint Mary’s is prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition of any elective candidate for a public office. 

The below information is not intended to be legal advice, but is instead, intended to provide guidance in the decision making process as to whether an activity or invitation to a candidate might be prohibited partisan campaign intervention.

Endorsing Candidates

  • Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits tax-exempt entities from participating in, or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of, or in opposition to a candidate for public office.
    • Participation includes:
      • publication or distribution of written statements or
      • the making of oral statements on behalf of, or in opposition to a candidate.
    • Exception – Nonpartisan Activities
      • The Code does permit nonpartisan election-related activities if they are conducted:
        • in a manner that is not biased for, or against any candidate and
        • in a manner that is not structured to help or hurt the chances for election of any candidate or group of candidates.
  1. Candidate Appearances on Campus
  • The IRS distinguishes between three types of candidate appearances on campuses:
    1. Invitations to candidates to appear on campus in their capacity as a candidate.
    2. Invitations to multiple candidates to participate in an on-campus debate or panel.
    3. Invitations to candidates to appear as non-candidate subject-matter experts, to deliver lectures, or teach classes.
  • The timing and circumstance for every candidate appearance must be considered on a case by case basis.
    1. This is true even if the candidate has made past appearances on campus.
    2. This is especially true during an election cycle.
  1. Individual Candidate Appearances
  • Candidates may be given an opportunity to appear individually, if:
    • All candidates for the same office are given equal access or opportunity to appear.
      • (The nature and manner of presentation for each opportunity must be considered.)

*Note: “Lesser” candidate exclusion

  • No candidate is favored in relation to the invited opportunity.
    • (Example: If invited to separate events, the events must be similar in quality, promotion, and attendance.  All events that candidates are invited to have been historically well-attended.)
  • For all appearances:
    • Explicit statements must be made during candidate introductions that emphasize that Saint Mary’s does not support or oppose the candidate.
    • Introductions should avoid using strong words of praise that can be interpreted as endorsements.
  1. Institutionally Sponsored Debates or Panels
    • Are permitted, if:
      • They are held in an academic setting that is not conducted as a campaign rally or event and are moderated by a neutral moderator.
      • All legally-qualified candidates are provided the same opportunity to participate in the forum.*
      • The forums are conducted as neutral panel discussions or debates.
      • The same questions are presented to each candidate in a nonpartisan manner.
      • Topics cover a broad range of issues and are of interest to the public.
      • All candidates are given an equal opportunity to present their views on each topic discussed.

*Lesser Candidates

  • The IRS had indicated that if it is impractical to invite all candidates, fewer than all candidates may be invited if
    •  reasonable, objective criteria
    • is consistently and non-arbitrarily applied
    • to decide whom to invite, and whom not to invite
  • This implies that Saint Mary’s has some discretion to set a standard for who is a viable candidate.
    • For example, if the field is crowded, the College may set a threshold that a candidate must have a 5% chance of getting a certain percentage of the vote, based upon past performance or polling.
  • The moderator needs to exercise care and not:
    • Ask candidates to agree or disagree with positions, agendas, platforms, or statements of the College.
    • Comment on answers or editorialize in a manner that shows approval or disapproval of candidates.
  1. Political Figure in Non-Candidate Capacity
    • Saint Mary’s may invite a candidate to speak as a public figure, expert or celebrity
      • Candidate may only speak in that capacity, and not as a candidate
      • There can be no mention of the speaker’s candidacy
      • There can be no campaign activity in connection with the speaker’s appearance
      • All publicity and communications about the speaker’s appearance  must identify the speaker in a non-candidate capacity, and cannot mention candidacy
      • A nonpartisan atmosphere must be maintained during the speaker’s appearance