Tax exemptions as a rationale for censorship in academe

On March 2, 2016, the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways & Means Committee held a hearing on "Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas on College Campuses."  Subcommittee chair Peter Roskam was quite enthused over the topic; ranking member John Lewis not so much.

The witnesses at the hearing included two college students, Alexander Atkins from Georgetown University and Joshua Zuckerman from Princeton.  They in many respects represent polar opposites politically (as well as alphabetically).  Atkins and Zuckerman each recounted obstacles to the free expression of ideas on campus.

What struck me the most about the stories they told to the subcommittee is the proactive roles of the college administrations in imposing obstacles to free expression, in ways and to extents unfamiliar to me from my undergraduate and postgraduate days of the 1970s and 1980s.

Also testifying was Catherine Sevchenko of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, as well as professors Frances Hill of the University of Miami Law School and Robert P. George of Princeton and Harvard.

Atkins recounted (and produced documentation) that the Georgetown administration invoked the Internal Revenue Code's restrictions upon political activities for tax-exempt organizations as its rationale for imposing curbs on free expression.  Sevchenko confirmed that such invocation of the Internal Revenue Code "is not an isolated event, but an example of a national problem that affects all colleges and universities."

Prof. George discussed the importance of the free exchange of ideas, and Prof. Hill explained free expression within the framework of the Internal Revenue Code.

Sevchenko referred to the problem as "institutional misunderstanding of applicable Internal Revenue Service guidelines regarding political expression on campus."  I know that the Internal Revenue Code is notoriously complex, but one must wonder how Georgetown's Office of Counsel, for all of its resources and talent, can "misunderstand" the difference between the personal speech and expressions of an individual and the speeches and expressions on behalf of an institution. 

Perhaps the main motivation of Georgetown and other colleges is to avoid entanglement in costly litigation, even where the courts ultimately rule in their favor.  If so, then the combination of political correctness and taxation is causing colleges to fail miserably in their purported missions to educate through the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints.

And perhaps there still are proponents of political correctness on the leftward side of the spectrum who can still reason clearly enough to grasp that the abusive uses of the Internal Revenue Service against those on the right, whose ideologies differ from those of the chief executive of the United States, might just as easily be turned against themselves.

Kenneth H. Ryesky is a lawyer who has taught business law and taxation at Queens College CUNY.  He formerly served as an attorney for the IRS.

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