Washington and Lee University Changes Policy on Political Activity/Free Speech for Student Organizations
Washington and Lee University has just made a significant change in its Student Handbook to explicitly allow student organizations like College Republicans, College Democrats and others to more fully exercise their free speech rights on campus, including sponsoring political activities such as setting up tables on campus, displaying political signs, handing out political literature and holding events of a political nature.
Bob Goodlatte, Senior Policy Advisor of Protect The 1st (a non-partisan, non-profit organization that defends First Amendment freedoms), former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and a graduate of Washington and Lee University School of Law, advocated for the change with school officials.
In November, Protect The 1st reported that during the 2021 Virginia statewide elections, Washington and Lee University school officials prevented campus College Republicans from displaying campaign materials for Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governor who ultimately won election. Protect The 1st pointed out this infringement of the political speech rights of students, and noted similar actions, such as Georgetown University Law Center’s crackdown in 2016 on a group of students handing out materials on campus in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“Strong institutions listen and adjust,” Goodlatte said. “I commend Washington and Lee for listening to their students, and to organizations like Protect The 1st and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), moving quickly to allow student organizations to exercise their right to political activity and speech on campus.”
The university had a long-standing policy based on unfounded concern that its tax-exempt status precludes partisan activity by students.
Washington and Lee’s Student Handbook now allows this activity, while making it clear that students must issue a disclaimer that their activities are those of the students and visiting speakers, and not the university.
“Political speech is central to what the founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment,” Goodlatte said. “Universities are not meant to be museums of ideology. It advances their mission to remain centers of hot debate and clashing ideas.”