General Counsel blocks student-run club from hosting candidate for U.S. Senate

By Meghan Zea /// News Editor

An event featuring Oregon Senate candidate Monica Wehby, scheduled for Sept. 15, was cancelled because administrators feared legal trouble for the College.

Through email, the student-run Politics Club promoted its event as an evening with “U.S. Senate Candidate Monica Wehby, a pediatric nurse, a first-time campaigner, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and all running under the Republican ticket.” Wehby planned to appear with two marriage equality activists, Ben West and Paul Rummel. She supported the couple when they sued for same-sex marriage in Oregon and won.

The day before Wehby was scheduled to appear, Director of Student Activities Jason Feiner told Politics Club president Daniela Lopez (’16), that she had to send a formal invite to Wehby’s opponent, current Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. The next day, Merkley’s campaign manager said Merkley could probably come, but by that time, Wehby had agreed to attend another event.

“Wehby’s campaign manager was upset that the dynamic would change if Merkley was there because it would turn into a debate,” Lopez said. “Wehby was supposed be accompanied by Ben West and the event was supposed to be about gay marriage.”

Feiner required Lopez to send an invite to Wehby’s opposition because Lewis & Clark is classified by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. That means the college is tax exempt and statutory rules set by the American Council of Legislation limit the tax exempt institutions from endorsing political candidates.

While it’s illegal for the College to endorse political candidates, that rule doesn’t apply to student groups. However,  Vice President, Secretary, General Counsel, David Ellis maintains that from a legal standpoint, LC’s tax exempt status is safer if student groups reach out to all eligible political candidates.

“Student groups have a lot of agency to invite speakers of their interest. The College supports that,” Ellis said. “With political activities, especially during campaign season, we push for equal access, so that we don’t put our tax exempt status at risk.”

Lopez said that the struggle she faced in organizing the Wehby event opens up a larger conversation about how much power student groups actually have.

“It frustrates me a bit because as a student organization, I want to believe that we have a lot of power,” Lopez said. “But we are under Lewis & Clark, so we have to follow their laws, conduct, and policy.”

Ellis suggests that if student groups would like to host another political candidate, they should work with him to generate “similar environments, promotion and outreach” for each candidate. That way it won’t appear as if the College is using a student group to endorse a political candidate.

Lopez is currently rescheduling with both the Wehby and Merkley campaigns.

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