It’s everywhere. We are in the midst of an exciting and interesting election year. But, that means I must remind you to avoid any action that could give the impression that the American Library Association — rather than you as an individual private citizen — is engaging in “political speech” (“the support of or opposition to a candidate for public office”) or that ALA resources are being used for that purpose. ALA, because of its particular tax exempt status, is expressly, absolutely prohibited by the U.S. Internal Revenue Code from engaging in “political speech.”
What do I mean by that? “ALA resources” would include any use of ALA titles (like councilor, chair of…, president of...); ALA discussion lists, blogs or wikis (including those of ALA divisions, round tables and other groups that are part of ALA); stationery; publications or websites; headquarters or conference meeting rooms; or, staff time. And, what kinds of activities might be included in “political speech”? The law is broad — and the threshold for “political speech” is relatively low. “Political speech” includes activities such as soliciting or making campaign contributions, providing a forum for a candidate (in print or at a conference, for instance), expressing “support for or opposition to” a candidate or political party — even if that candidate is a librarian, even if that candidate is a member.
Finally, “political speech” happens within an election year — which starts January 1 of the year in which the election will be held. That’s why members often say to me, “but we had him/her speak just a few years ago.” True. Not this year, though.
The absolute prohibition on “political speech” by associations like ALA is serious — and the “zero tolerance” enforcement policy of the IRS has been upheld by the courts. It is important that the law be observed. It is also important, though, to understand that “political speech” is different from “lobbying,” which seeks to influence legislation or regulation. Even during an election year, ALA continues to lobby for legislation and regulation that will benefit libraries and the public. For instance, during recent months, you have received requests from the ALA Washington Office to contact legislators regarding appropriations, legislation in support of school libraries and other issues. There are regulations and limitations on lobbying by organizations like ALA, of course — and ALA works within the applicable laws.
Many ALA members may not be comfortable with these rules, may see them as infringements on their personal free speech. I understand that. ALA’s intent is not to limit what any individual may do personally in the public arena — but to be clear that the resources of an organization like ALA, an association tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, may not be used for that purpose. The consequence is revocation of tax exempt status. There are no “intermediate” or “warning” consequences.
Judith Krug, the long-time director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, points out that the law imposes many restrictions on speech — and these laws are one example. We — ALA staff and members — are required to comply with these laws until such time as Congress may choose to change them. In doing so, we protect the interests of the American Library Association and its members, present and future, and ALA’s ability to advocate aggressively on behalf of libraries and the public.
Want more details? Over the past several years, a number of background documents have been developed to guide ALA leaders and staff through a complex legal environment. Four such documents are available here (PDFs): ALA Legal Framework, Election Year Rules, Election Year Rules – Additional Notes, and Lobbying and ALA: Fact Sheet.
Still more? Call or email me. I may not know the answer — but I do know where and how to find out.