The University has released a set of activism and advocacy guidelines, responding to inquiries about the rules behind making political statements as a Yale affiliate.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, thousands of Yale affiliates have taken to the University’s public spaces to protest the policies of his administration. But this widespread activism has also raised questions about the role of any Yale affiliate in political campaigns and lobbying, which Yale sought to clarify by publishing a set of guidelines on March 15. Though Yale did not create any new policies — the statement only clarified pre-existing ones — the guidelines come as students, faculty and staff coalesce in a changed political landscape.
As a tax-exempt organization, federal law mandates that the University cannot support or oppose political campaigns, and Yale is also limited in its ability to lobby for legislation. According to University spokesman Tom Conroy, the recent guidelines release was intended to remind all community members “that, for example, they cannot use University resources to support their political engagement and that they should take care to ensure that their individual political campaigning or lobbying activities are not viewed as conducted by or on behalf of Yale.”
Though the guidelines require that individuals are careful not to speak for the University, Yale activists are permitted to state their school affiliation when engaging in advocacy work. Furthermore, the guidelines prohibit the use of identifiable University resources — like letterheads, websites or servers — in activism or advocacy to retain a distinction between personal and University actions.
Trump’s November victory set off a chain reaction of community activism at Yale, with new groups forming such as Activists at SOM and the Yale Faculty, Students and Staff Post-Election Organizing Group.
Conroy emphasized that there is no expectation that activism on campus would change as a result of the guideline statement, unless a group had planned to engage in advocacy that violated the guidelines.
Former president of the Yale College Democrats Maxwell Ulin ’17 said he had already known about the restrictions from a freshman counselor meeting with representatives from Yale’s Office of General Counsel. At that meeting, administrators told FroCos that students could not use Yale email addresses, email lists and University spaces for political activism.
However, Ulin said the regulations the administration presented to the students were unrealistic.
“Initially, when rolling out these policies and clarifying them or recementing them, they weren’t cognizant of the reality of campaign organizing on campus and what’s feasible and practical for student groups to accommodate,” Ulin said.
At the freshman counselor meeting, an attendee asked whether the Dems were permitted to use a University email list to invite students to canvass for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, a question to which an administrator explicitly responded no.
As a result, the Dems began using non-Yale-affiliated panlists for its elections committee emails. Following the FroCo meeting, a representative from the Dems met with the Office of General Counsel to clarify the guidelines.
According to Ulin, the administration has become “more accommodating” with regard to the use of the Yale name and Yale resources since the presidential election last fall. In an email to Dems officers in December, Adriana Ortiz, a student affairs fellow in the Yale College Dean’s Office, cited Yale’s policies on campaign activity and instructed the officers to include a disclaimer on their website distancing the group from the University.
Ulin added that the University has said that it would start policing and enforcing these rules, but he has yet to see anyone punished. He postulated that the University was “ultrasensitive to being maligned in any way as being a partisan liberal body whose tax-exempt status could be questioned.”
Still, the Dems name their bank accounts “Bulldog PAC” as to distance themselves from Yale. According to current Dems President Josh Hochman ’18, officers include a disclaimer in some of their emails and on their website to specify that their work is not done on behalf of Yale.
Gregg Gonsalves GRD ’16, who organized a January vigil against Trump’s immigration order that drew over 1,000 people to Cross Campus, said that the University’s guidelines were “unremarkable” and stated that Yale was simply “fulfilling its duty to inform the community.” Gonsalves added that the recommendations were comparable to those at many other nonprofit organizations, which are not allowed to engage in political activities.
Still, Branson Rideaux ’20 — who is co-president of the Yale Undergraduate Political Art Club and who stood on Cross Campus last fall wearing chains in protest of the name of Calhoun College — lamented the University’s decision to release a statement. Rideaux said the guidelines seemed like an attempt to make Yale not seem liberally biased, adding that he thought the statement would have no effect on campus activism.
“Effective activism should be willing to be loud, courageous and step on toes if need be,” Rideaux said. “Yale may not outwardly say that they support our messages, but our messages need to be said.”
Sarah Strober ’20, a founder of the activist group Grab Back, Move Forward, said that although the University should oppose unjust legislation and harmful rhetoric, it should not take a political stance to avoid ostracizing members of the Yale community.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $3.12 billion were spent on lobbying in 2016.