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Election Law Frequently Asked Questions for Voluntary Student Organizations

are there limits on the types of election-related activities that VSO's may undertake?
Yes, if University funds or resources are involved. VSOs (like SSOs) may not use University funds or resources to engage in:

  • Lobbying activities;
  • Campaign activities (including fundraising) for or against particular candidates; or
  • Campaign activities (including fundraising) for or against ballot initiatives.

what are considered to be University funds or resources?
University funds include any money from any University source (including MSA). University resources include property owned by or managed by the University, as well as services provided by University faculty or staff. As a result, VSOs are strictly prohibited from using the University's name (e.g., U-M, Michigan, Wolverines, Go Blue, or other protected forms), the University's logos (e.g., the Block M), University e-mail accounts, copying machines, mailing lists, stationery, telephones, or computers for campaign-related activities or lobbying efforts.

what type of campaign-related activities can a VSO undertake using University funds and resources?
VSOs may access University funds or resources to engage in educational activities that relate to political issues. These educational activities must present "a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts." Examples of permissible educational activities include:

  • Voter registration drives (if the VSO itself has tax-exempt status and conducts the drive in a non-partisan fashion);
  • Candidate debates and forums as long as certain procedures are in place to ensure a fair and neutral forum for all qualified candidates; and
  • Distribution of non-partisan voter guides or other factual information if certain guidelines are followed.

what type of election-related activities can a VSO undertake if University funds and resources are not involved?
A VSO has greater leeway to undertake political or campaign-related activities when it conducts those activities without using University funds or resources. Examples of activities that a VSO may undertake with its own funds and resources include:

  • Invite speakers to campus to discuss ballot initiatives or other election-related issues;
  • Donate money to a ballot initiative or candidate campaign;
  • Act as a campaign volunteer by writing letters, making phone calls, knocking on doors, or distributing flyers in support of or in opposition to a political candidate or ballot proposal;
  • Organize rallies in support of or in opposition to a political candidate or ballot proposal;
  • Write letters to the editor or op-ed pieces for publication;
  • Give speeches and participate in debates; and
  • Write to elected official to express your opinions.

When a VSO engages in these types of campaign-related activities or lobbying efforts (which cannot involve the use of University funds or resources), the VSO must include a disclaimer on all related materials (print, online, etc.) that its activities do not represent the views of the University of Michigan. We recommend the following disclaimer:

This activity is not sponsored or endorsed in any way by the University of Michigan. The (student organization) is fully and solely responsible for this activity and the views expressed herein.

to what extent may a vso reference its affiliation with the University in conducting its permissible campaign-related or lobbying efforts?
All student organizations must comply with the University’s Identity Guidelines, which outline the permissible use of the University of Michigan name, seal, and logos. The policy is available here. The relevant portion is provided here: 

While general usage of the University’s name is discouraged, MSA-registered student organizations may use the name to signify the location of their activity. For example: “Chess Club at the University of Michigan” or “Association of Women in Science, U-M Chapter” are acceptable uses. Generally speaking, the University’s name (“The University of Michigan,” “U-M,” or any derivative) may not be used in the beginning of any student organization name. Use of the seal in connection with any student organization is not allowed.

 

When considering if or how the University’s name or logos can be used in connection with a student organization’s name, the organization should contact the U-M Office of Student Activities and Leadership at 734-763-5900, since specific determinations are handled on a case-by-case basis. Non-registered and non-University organizations and entities are prohibited from any name association with the University.

All permissible election-related or lobbying activity organized by a VSO must include a disclaimer (such as the one provided above) informing the public that the activity is not sponsored or endorsed by the University of Michigan.

Can MSA engage in lobbying activities?
Yes, subject to the limits set by federal law. Because MSA maintains its own separate tax-exempt status, it may engage in permissible lobbying activities with regard to issues of concern to the entire student body.

If MSA can engage in lobbying activities, then why can’t MSA fund VSO lobbying activities?
The IRS permits tax-exempt organizations to participate in lobbying activity only if that activity is “insubstantial.” In addition, because MSA is associated with the University, a public institution, there are additional state law limits on the use of public funds and resources. These restrictions require significant administrative oversight for MSA to ensure its continued compliance with the law. As a result, MSA, in consultation with University advisors, has decided that it will not fund lobbying activities conducted by student organizations.

Can a VSO receive University funds to pay for travel to and from a lobbying activity?
No. University funds cannot be used to fund travel if the only purpose or the main purpose of the trip is to engage in lobbying activity. If, however, lobbying is only an incidental part of the activity, travel funds may be approved.

Can VSOs raise funds on University property to support election-related or lobbying activities?
Yes, provided that the fundraising activity (such as a bake sale or dance) satisfies the following two conditions. First, the VSO must comply with all relevant University policies, including those addressing use of University facilities. For example, political fundraising is prohibited in campus residence halls and in any other University facility that is primarily used as a dwelling (such as the President’s House).

Second, the VSO must include a disclaimer (such as the one provided above) informing the public that the activity is not sponsored or endorsed by the University of Michigan and, as discussed above, cannot use University resources to conduct the fundraiser.

Can VSO's publicize their election-related or lobbying activities on campus?
Yes, provided that they meet the following conditions. First, VSOs must use their own (i.e., non-University) funds to publicize their election-related or lobbying activities on campus.

Second, any publicity must be consistent with University posting guidelines applicable to members of the general public or individual students. For example, VSOs may post flyers (that they produce using their own funds) in designated community spaces, distribute flyers in-person, or list events in the Daily or University Record.

Finally, all publicity must include a disclaimer (such as the one provided above) informing the public that the activity is not sponsored or endorsed by the University of Michigan.

What are the penalties for violating the laws about participating in a political campaign?
It is a misdemeanor to knowingly violate Section 57 of Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act. The law is enforced by the Michigan Secretary of State. Individuals who knowingly violate this law are subject to a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to one year or both. Also, if the Secretary of State determines that the University has knowingly violated the law, the University could be fined $20,000 or an amount equal to the value of the resources used, whichever is greater. In addition, if a charitable organization engages in lobbying in excess of the federal limits or in prohibited campaign activity, the organization may lose its tax-exempt status, resulting in all of its income being subject to taxation. In addition, the organization may be required to pay excise taxes with respect to the prior improper political activities. Furthermore, in some cases, an additional tax equal to 5% of the improper lobbying expenditures may be imposed against organization officers who knew of the expenditures’ likely unlawfulness but approved them anyway.

Does state or federal law limit my ability to engage in political activity as an individual (rather than as a VSO)?
No, the law does not in any way restrict the ability of individuals, acting on their own behalf and using their personal time and resources, to participate fully in political activities. When you are engaging in political activities as a private individual, you must not say or imply that you are acting on behalf of the University or your VSO and must not use University/VSO resources to undertake your personal political activities.

Whom should a VSO consult to determine if a planned VSO activity is permissible?
VSOs should contact the Student Activities and Leadership Office with any questions. The Student Activities and Leadership Office may in turn consult with the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel as needed.

 

 
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