Because Trinity is a 501(c)(3) private nonprofit corporation, certain laws and regulations apply to the conduct of the institution and its agents with regard to political campaigns and political activities. The Catholic University of America’s General Counsel provides a comprehensive compendium of laws and regulations related to political activity, and the American Council on Education provides a detailed checklist of permissible and impermissible political activities to guide administrators, faculty and staff. Trinity’s Employee Handbook also contains guidance on political activities.
As a general rule, on their personal time and outside of their Trinity responsibilities, all faculty and staff have a right to engage in political activities, to participate in political campaigns and to be advocates for political issues of their choosing. Trinity does not and may not direct any individual political choices, and may neither support nor prevent any specific political expression so long as that expression is completely separate from Trinity.
From time to time, Trinity may engage in specific political advocacy around issues of concern to higher education, e.g., federal financial aid laws and policies. However, outside of routine engagement with issues specifically related to higher education, Trinity corporately must avoid the appearance or reality of advocacy for candidates for office or endorsement of specific political positions.
In the exercise of their duties and obligations while at Trinity, or while representing Trinity externally, employees (both faculty and staff) must exercise great care in matters related to political issues. While some activities are permissible and even encouraged, other activities are problematic and require prudence to avoid the appearance, if not the reality, of specific endorsement of candidates in ways that appear to imply Trinity’s institutional endorsement.
Some of the types of activities that are permissible and even encouraged include:
- Voter registration and voter education
- Education and training around the electoral process
- Bi-partisan/non-partisan educational programs about specific policy issues
- Candidate forums so long as all candidates are invited and equal time is offered to all
Individual employees may work outside of Trinity in support of specific candidates or advocate for particular policies, but in engaging those activities Trinity employees should:
- Engage in political activities on their own time, not as part of any official work time;
- Refrain from statements or activities that would imply that Trinity is supporting or endorsing their position with regard to a candidate or a policy;
- Refrain from any appearance or reality of coercing colleagues or students to participate in a specific political activity;
- Refrain from using any Trinity resources to advocate for a candidate or policy, e.g., website postings, using Trinity letterhead or logo to write letters of support for candidates, contributing any tangible resources from Trinity (supplies, space, etc.)
As part of an educational activity in a course, faculty may include assignments for students to become involved with political campaigns or policy groups. Such academic activities are permissible so long as the activities are truly educational and students have options that do not coerce them into working for a candidate or policy to which they are opposed.
Institutional officials (president, vice presidents, deans) must exercise even higher levels of prudence with regard to political activities because their high public profiles may implicate the institution’s political endorsement even if the official is working on personal time. As a general rule, members of the senior staff should consult with Trinity’s legal counsel if they are engaged in political work on their own time to make sure that no legal conflicts exist.