Lobbying and Political Activities

Colleges and universities may need to become involved in federal, state, and/or local legislative initiatives in order to protect or enhance educational and institutional interests. These interactions may constitute "lobbying" activities that are allowable under the Internal Revenue Code, but only within certain limitations.

Lobbying is generally described as any attempt to influence the action of any legislative body (e.g., Congress, state legislatures, county boards, city councils, and their staffs) or any federal, state, or local government agency, or to affect the opinions of the general public. Laws regulating lobbying exist at the federal, state, and local levels, but can differ widely in scope, depending on the jurisdiction. Some laws, for example, only regulate lobbying of the legislative branch. Others also cover lobbying of administrative agencies and officers in the executive branch (e.g., lobbying for federally funded grants).

The term "legislation" includes action by the Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar legislative body with respect to acts, bills, resolutions or similar items, or by the public in a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. "Specific legislation" includes legislation that has already been introduced in a legislative body, as well as a specific legislative proposal that may not have been introduced.

Tax-exempt organizations are permitted to lobby, and the University engages in lobbying on a limited number of issues, mostly those affecting education, research, and other related activities. All lobbying activities of universities and other charitable organizations are regulated by multiple, overlapping rules of the federal government. 

Emory is required to document and report lobbying efforts conducted by faculty and employees on behalf of the University. For example, the Internal Revenue Service requires universities to disclose expenses incurred in lobbying activities on its annual tax return. Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, semi-annual reports must be provided to Congress about Emory's lobbying efforts. 

There are two basic types of lobbying activities that are permissible, within or in conjunction with the Office of Government and Community Affairs, under the IRS guidelines:

Direct Lobbying

Direct lobbying is any attempt to influence any legislation through communication with:

  • Any member or employee of a legislative body
  • Any government official or employee (other than a member or employee of a legislative body) who may participate in the formulation of the legislation, but only if the principal purpose of the communication is to influence legislation.

Communication with a legislator or government official is considered direct lobbying communication if the communication:

  • Refers to specific legislation
  • Reflects a view on such legislation

Grassroots Lobbying

Grassroots lobbying is any attempt to influence legislation through an attempt to affect the opinions of the general public or any segment of the general public. Grassroots lobbying encourages recipients to take action about specific legislation when it:

  • States that the recipient should contact legislators or other government employees who may participate in the formulation of legislation for the purpose of influencing legislation
  • Provides a legislator's address, phone number, or similar information
  • Includes a petition, tear-off postcard, or similar material for the recipient to send to a legislator
  • Specifically identifies one or more legislators who:
  • Will vote on legislation
  • Opposes the communication view on the legislation
  • Is undecided about the legislation
  • Is the recipient's representative in the legislature
  • Is a member of the legislative committee that will consider the legislation

Exceptions to the Definitions of Lobbying

In general, engaging in non-partisan analysis, study, or research and making its results available to the general public, or to governmental bodies, officials, or employees is not considered either direct or grassroots lobbying. 

Non-partisan analysis, study, or research may advocate a particular position or viewpoint as long as there is a sufficiently full and fair exposition of the pertinent facts to enable the public or an individual to form an independent opinion or conclusion. However, non-partisan analysis may be deemed to be lobbying if it is later used to influence specific legislation.


The IRS has provided several examples to illustrate the boundaries of what qualifies as lobbying.

  1. An officer of the University writes to a member of Congress urging him or her to vote against an amendment that will be offered during the debate on a bill. This constitutes lobbying because it states a view about specific legislation.
  2. A member of the faculty visits a member of Congress and requests on behalf of a university that he or she to sponsor model legislation proposed by a professional society. This constitutes lobbying because it refers to and reflects a view on a specific legislative proposal, although no bill has been introduced.
  3. A group of faculty conducts a research project collecting information on the dangers of the use of pesticides. They produce and publish a report that presents the advantages, disadvantages, and economic costs of current patterns of pesticide use and significantly reduced levels of pesticides. The report concludes that the costs outweigh the benefits and recommends that legislation should be adopted to control the use of pesticides. This does not constitute lobbying because it presents information on both sides of the issue and presents a full and fair exposition of the facts that will enable the reader to form an independent judgment.
  4. An officer of the University contacts a member of Congress requesting that she write to an Executive Branch agency concerning proposed regulations issued by that agency. This communication does not constitute lobbying because it does not reflect a view on specific legislation.

Prohibited Political Activities

While all members of the Emory community are free to express their political opinions and engage in political activities to whatever extent they desire, it is very important that they do so only in their individual capacities and avoid even the appearance that they are speaking or acting for the University in political matters. To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of organization functions and publications, organization leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to indicate clearly that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.

Because of its tax-exempt status, Emory is prohibited from participation or intervention in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

Impermissible activities include:

  • endorsing or opposing a candidate
  • making campaign contributions of money, good, or services
  • publishing or distributing statements
  • becoming involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to a particular candidate. Such political intervention can result in the loss of an organization's tax exempt status.

Inviting a Candidate to Speak

Depending on the facts and circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or individually (not as a candidate). 

Speaking as a Candidate 

When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event as a political candidate, the organization must take steps to ensure that:

  • It provides an equal opportunity to the political candidates seeking the same office
  • It does not indicate any support of or opposition to the candidate (this should be stated explicitly when the candidate is introduced and in communications concerning the candidate's attendance)
  • No political fundraising occurs

Equal Opportunity to Participate

In determining whether candidates are given an equal opportunity to participate, an organization should consider the nature of the event to which each candidate is invited, in addition to the manner of presentation.

For example, an organization that invites one candidate to speak at its well-attended annual banquet, but invites the opposing candidate to speak at a sparsely attended general meeting, will likely be found to have violated the political campaign prohibition, even if the manner of presentation for both speakers is otherwise neutral.

Public Forum

Sometimes an organization invites several candidates to speak at a public forum. A public forum involving several candidates for public office may qualify as an exempt educational activity. However, if the forum is operated to show a bias for or against any candidate, then the forum would be a prohibited campaign activity, as it would be considered intervention or participation in a political campaign. 

When an organization invites several candidates to speak at a forum, it should consider the following factors:

  • Whether questions for the candidate are prepared and presented by an independent nonpartisan panel
  • Whether the topics discussed by the candidates cover a broad range of issues that the candidates would address if elected to the office sought and are of interest to the public
  • Whether each candidate is given an equal opportunity to present his or her views on the issues discussed
  • Whether the candidates are asked to agree or disagree with positions, agendas, platforms or statements of the organization
  • Whether a moderator comments on the questions or otherwise implies approval or disapproval of the candidates

Speaking as a Non-Candidate

An organization may invite political candidates to speak in a non-candidate capacity. For instance, a political candidate may be a public figure because he or she: (a) currently holds, or formerly held, public office; (b) is considered an expert in a non-political field; or (c) is a celebrity or has led a distinguished military, legal, or public service career. When a candidate is invited to speak at an event in a non-candidate capacity, it is not necessary for the organization to provide equal access to all political candidates.

However, the organization must ensure that:

  • The individual speaks only in a non-candidate capacity
  • Neither the individual nor any representative of the organization makes any mention of his or her candidacy or the election
  • No campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate's attendance

In addition, the organization should clearly indicate the capacity in which the candidate is appearing and should not mention the individual's political candidacy or the upcoming election in the communications announcing the candidate's attendance at the event.