|Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility|
Permissable Activities During a Political Campaignby Duane Fickeisen
Interim Executive Director, 1996
It is legal for non-profits to LOBBY but not to engage in POLITICAL ACTIVITY. Lobbying is the attempt to influence legislation. Political Activity is the attempt to influence the outcome of an election, which we are not permitted to do.
We are required to account for and report our expenditures on lobbying as a separate expense item from our other operations. There are some limits on how of our budget we can spend on lobbying efforts, but those are not of primary concern given our current activities.
1987 legislation clarified political activity and explicitly prohibits political activity against or on behalf of a candidate. Heavy fines can be assessed against the organization, against individuals (both staff and volunteer) who knowingly make or agree to political activity on behalf of the organization. In addition, the 501 c 3 status may even be revoked and an injunction issued to force an immediate ceasation of activities. This is serious stuff.
So what can we do?
The safest course for you is to AVOID SPEAKING ON BEHALF OF CPSR when you engage in political activity. If you identify yourself as a CPSR member or respond to a querey that seems to be directed at you because you are involved in CPSR, be sure you state clearly that you are speaking on behalf of yourself, not CPSR. Then you are free to conduct any political activity that any other member of the public can do.
We can continue to educate the public and policy makers about issues of concern to CPSR and to lobby for passage of legislation. We can give our positions on issues, but not mention the candidates' positions.
Electioneering: We may not endorse, contribute to, work for, or otherwise support or oppose any candidate for elected office (including national and local). This does not mean that officers, members, or employees are prohibited from doing so as private citizens, of course. If you identify yourself with CPSR, you must make it plain that they are speaking solely for yourself and not on behalf of CPSR. If you don't indentify yourself, but the media does, you have done nothing wrong.
Candidates' Statements: It is legal to inform candidates about our position on issues, urge candidates to support our issues if elected, and ask them to go on record pledging support to our issues. While the candidate may do so, we cannot distribute a candidate's statement to the public or the press (we can, however, do so to our members only).
Questionnaires and Position-Papers-With-Response: Position papers that request a sign on and response are treated as questionniares. These are problemmatical. They must be clearly divorced from our special interest and be unbiased (so why do it?) and must not imply endorsement. Most likely the results could not be distributed outside our membership, either. Best advice on this is NOT to do it.
Voting Records: We can legally distribute voting records on legislation TO MEMBERS only provided we do so in the same manner outside a campaign time as we do during a campaign. However, we cannot say anything like "voted for us" or "supported CPSR position." It would be unacceptable if during the campaign we published voting records as a recap of votes for the session, but not if we did so after the campaign.
Public Forum: There is no problem inviting candidates to attend a meeting or public forum and state their views on subjects of interest to the organization provided we are even-handed in promoting and holding the meeting and avoid commenting on candidate's responses. If there is a question period, each candidate must be given the opportunity to respond to all questions put by the organization. Members of the general public are not so bound, but the moderator must assure balance and fairness. ALL bona fide candidates must be invited and it is best if the invitations are simultaneous and identically worded. Statements made may be published as news items in the newsletter distributed primarily to members, but the stories must appear without editorial comment and all candidates must have equal access opportunity. It must also be stated that all views are those of the candidates and that all candidates for the given office were given the same opportunity.
Membership Lists: Can be made available to candidates, but only if all candidates are made aware that they are available. However, if the list is given to the candidate, it would be an illegal contribution, so there must be a fair exchange (sale, rental) involved.
Duane H. Fickeisen, Interim Director Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility