Note: I'm the author of a new book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest, but I'm not part of the Obama Campaign.
The first efforts in the 2008 campaign to suppress political speech on college campuses have begun. The School of the Art Institute in Chicago (SAIC) has banned the documentary "Senator Obama Goes to Africa" (which I reviewed here, also available on DVD) from being shown in its Gene Siskel Film Center, which is one of the leading independent movie theaters in Chicago.
Here’s the news brief from F newsmagazine, the SAIC student newspaper:
Gene Siskel Film Center cancels Obama screening
SAIC's Gene Siskel Film Center announced in January that it has cancelled its screening of the film Senator Obama Goes to Africa until after the Presidential election. According to the Siskel: "As a not-for-profit organization, the Gene Siskel Film Center cannot create a perceived aura of support for any political candidate ... we feel it is in the best interest of the Gene Siskel Film Center to postpone the screening of Senator Obama Goes to Africa until after the election. Screening the film at this time could jeopardize our not for profit status." Rumors have circulated that the center was pressured to cancel the screening by particular members of SAIC's administration. When asked about this, the Executive Director of the film center, Jean de St. Aubin, replied "the potential for breaking IRS rules, and therefore jeopardizing the shared 501(c)(3) status of the museum, school and film center, was brought to our attention by the administration of SAIC. It was then decided by me to cancel the screening."
The claim by SAIC administrators that showing a documentary about a political candidate violates IRS rules for non-profits is utter hogwash. A documentary is considered news coverage, which means it gets a total exemption from prohibitions on political activity by non-profits. Moreover, the rules are perfectly clear that colleges can hear from journalists speaking about politicians, and can even hear from politicians directly. (Otherwise, all of the appearances by political candidates at colleges would be illicit and result in the loss of non-profit status.)
The American Association of University Professors spoke out quite clearly about this issue last fall in a statement on political speakers (this article explains the issue further). In 2004, several colleges tried to ban Michael Moore from speaking based on a similar misunderstanding of the law; in one case, a community college tried to ban an instructor from showing "Fahrenheit 9-11" in a film class. But there is not the slightest doubt that IRS regulations clearly allow colleges to show documentaries and have political speakers.
SAIC administrators did not respond to my requests for comment. Bob Hercules, who made the documentary (and had to scramble to find another theater to show the movie, but could only get two screening times at the Music Box), wrote to me: "I don't think it came from the Film Center itself (since they love the film) but from the legal dept. at the Art Institute of Chicago." Hercules added, "I don't think the cancellation was politically motivated, just some lawyers trying to protect the instiution's non-profit status."
I’m not so sure. An misunderstanding this grotesque of the law covering non-profits (by lawyers who presumably specialize in such matters) requires either complete incompetence or a political motivation. And if it’s discovered that any Hillary Clinton supporters at SAIC were involved in this decision to ban the movie for political reasons, then that might be considered a violation of the IRS rules.
But regardless of the motivation, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has made a terrible mistake in banning this movie. Let’s hope that the administrators there reverse this decision immediately, and let’s hope other colleges learn from their mistakes by clearly defending free expression of all kinds on campus.