Non-profit’s political social media posts raise eyebrows

Liberty University thinktank pushes boundaries on political advertising with posts appearing to endorse Trump and champion right-wing issues

November 3, 2020
A Keep America Great flag
Source: iStock

Viewed solely as a political advertisement on social media this election year, the picture would be largely unremarkable. A tightly framed photo shows President Donald Trump, eyes closed, hands folded. Several people lay hands on his shoulders. Text above the photo cites the Bible − the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy − and reads: “Pray for Our President.”

But the advertisement is unusual because of the organisation purchasing it. That organisation is the Falkirk Center, a subsidiary of the private, non-profit Liberty University. And it is highly irregular for non-profit colleges or universities to purchase advertisements that come even close to the appearance of endorsing specific candidates for office. In part, that is because the portion of the tax code under which most private universities are registered as non-profits forbids backing political candidates for office.

“Most institutions are very skittish about playing too closely in the political realm,” said Bob Brock, president of Educational Marketing Group. “The country is so strongly divided that you can easily offend a number of your target audiences by taking positions.”

Falkirk has run about 50 advertisements on Facebook and Instagram this year that the social media giant marked as being about issues, elections or politics, according to Facebook’s ad library. It has spent roughly $51,000.

Most of those ads were not about President Trump specifically and did not picture him, although they tended to feature conservative personalities or mirror right-wing themes − for example, arguing that churches should be allowed to open during the pandemic, supporting the Second Amendment or arguing that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-Christian.

Whether any of the advertisements could be interpreted as violating federal rules for non-profit organisations is murky at best. Experts tended to agree that Falkirk was pushing the limit in a few cases without clearly violating it.

A Liberty spokesman suggested in an email that it is politicians who are mirroring Christian conservatives’ (and Liberty’s) long-held beliefs, not the other way around.

“The Center is nonpartisan and functions to educate and inform citizens about principles and core beliefs that are central to the Christian and Conservative worldview,” said the spokesman, Scott Lamb. “The function of advertising on social media channels is to build the audience in order to further the impact of the content the Center produces. The organic growth of the Falkirk Center audience has been remarkable, but there is always a place for paid advertising as well.”

Liberty announced the creation of the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty late last year, with the Center being organised as a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty operating under the university’s 501(c)(3) charter.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, 501(c)(3) organisations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office”. Contributions to a campaign violate the prohibition on political activity, as do written or verbal statements made on behalf of an organisation in favour of or in opposition to a candidate.

Organisations that violate this rule can have their tax-exempt status revoked and may have to pay excise taxes.

But some political activities are allowed for 501(c)(3) organisations, such as certain voter education activities. And organisations can take positions on public policy issues, as long as a message does not favour or oppose a candidate.

“Be aware that the message does not need to identify the candidate by name to be prohibited political campaign activity,” the IRS website says. “A message that shows a picture of a candidate, refers to a candidate’s political party affiliations, or contains other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography may be prohibited political campaign activity.”

Many of Falkirk’s Facebook ads could fall under the category of public policy issues, according to experts. One showed Ronald Reagan next to a quote opposing abortion. Another, from June, asked how it is possible for public health officials to say protests are safe, but church attendance is not.

Then there is the ad with Trump’s image in prayer. The photo appears to be taken from a September 2017 meeting in the Oval Office at which the president signed a proclamation for a National Day of Prayer for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Faith leaders attended and prayed for him.

Falkirk has run several versions of the ad over time, including one urging prayer “for our leaders”.

The ad does not depend on who holds the presidency, said Lamb, Liberty’s spokesman.

“‘Pray for the President’ will be a recurring ad or meme no matter what party sits in the White House,” he said. “It’s a nonpartisan command, based on the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 2:1-3.”

Experts asked about Falkirk’s ads generally resisted saying definitively whether any of the ads go beyond what a 501(c)(3) organisation is allowed to do. Ultimately, the IRS determines tax-exempt status.

It has, however, become more common for universities to put out messages such as “Black Lives Matter” in recent months, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. Others are promoting voter registration in a nonpartisan way.

“You are seeing a lot of higher education institutions spend,” Massoglia said. “But they are not necessarily spending on things that are as explicitly political or as explicitly related to political figures as pictures of the president.”

Others were more directly critical of Falkirk.

“The ads themselves are clearly outside the norm with respect to non-profit college advertising,” said Stephanie Hall, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive thinktank. “Even compared with other universities’ Facebook ads that are about ‘social issues, elections, or politics’ (Facebook ad library’s terms), Falkirk’s stand out for the racist and sexist undertones underlying its calls to political action.”

It is important to note that colleges and universities have often served as the backdrop for US presidents who are campaigning or barnstorming. Religious institutions have hosted speeches by new presidents, including the University of Notre Dame, which usually follows a tradition of hosting newly seated presidents, while the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, has said that she is using her alma mater, Howard University, as her campaign office.

College and university presidents have been wading into politics of late as well. The president of Southern New Hampshire University, Paul LeBlanc, endorsed Senator Michael Bennet for the US presidency when the Democratic primary was still underway. LeBlanc said that he was speaking as a private citizen, not a university president.

Liberty’s former president, Jerry Falwell Jr, also used this private citizen rationale in making explicit endorsements for and against politicians, including voicing unabashed support for Trump.

Still, the Falkirk ads and other messaging are new developments in the blurred boundaries between different segments of society, including politics, religion and higher education.

Michael Franz is a professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College who researches campaign finance, political advertising and interest groups. He co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks federal and gubernatorial candidate advertising during elections.

He pointed out that Falkirk can argue it is quoting inspirational language from politicians or touting parts of the conservative agenda that are part of its stated mission, but its messaging still demonstrates how different groups could play roles in political campaigns.

“This is interesting to track, and a clear example of how some groups can do a lot of promoting of candidates and oppositional work during campaigns,” he said in an email.

Others were struck by the themes in the Center’s advertising and non-paid messaging. Paul D. Miller is a professor at Georgetown University who is writing a book about Christianity, nationalism and American identity. The most prominent theme he saw from Falkirk was anti-progressivism.

“One ad…that says ‘pray for America’ and adds a reference to 2 Chronicles 7:14, is clearly an example of Christian nationalism,” he said, adding that that verse is widely popular among Christians contending that America is God’s chosen nation.

“I also note several ads about the pandemic, advocating against masks and in favour of reopening, or quoting Trump saying not to be afraid,” Miller said. “This reflects how the pandemic has (somehow) become a culture war wedge issue and is alarming and dangerous.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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