Thursday, March 3, 2016

Election year reminders for MCCPTA/local PTAs as 501(c)(3) organizations --

No news flash here - it is an election year.  In fact, early voting for the primary begins in less than two months -- on April 14, to be precise.  So ---- just a few reminders about what - as 501(c)(3) organizations - it is permissible for MCCPTA and PTAs to do in the world of elections and politics, and what organizationally we need to avoid.
The issues that seem to create the most uncertainty boil down to two things:
  1. Distinguishing personal activity from MCCPTA/PTA sponsored or sanctioned activity
  2. Candidates vs. elected officials
It's really pretty simple.  Acting in your personal capacity you can be as active as you want on any issue, or on behalf of any candidate, that you choose. And I hope you are very civically engaged - watching, listening, getting informed, supporting candidates of your choice etc. If anyone criticizes you for your personal engagement in the political process because you are a member or officer of your local PTA or MCCPTA ---- they are WAY off base.  You DO NOT forfeit your right to have opinions, and work for the candidates or issues you care about, just because you are also a member or officer of a 501(c)(3) organization.  The key is not trumpeting your involvement in MCCPTA/PTA as part of, or while you're engaged in, advocacy or support for a particular issue or candidate.
BUT - as 501(c)(3)s - MCCPTA and local PTAs can not support or endorse any political candidate. That means all of us - when wearing our MCCPTA or local PTA hats, or acting in our PTA capacity on behalf of MCCPTA or our local PTAs - are similarly constrained. And - as MCCPTA or your local PTA - you can not claim to support or endorse a particular issue unless the membership has voted to do so (and the position MCCPTA/your local PTA takes is not in opposition to an official issue stance taken by National PTA or Maryland PTA).
Also -- there is a big difference between an elected official, and a candidate for office.  In an election year, sometimes the one is also the other --- but your only concern is not endorsing or supporting a candidate for office.  So what if it is a Maryland election year, and all of the members of your General Assembly delegation (your senator and three delegates) and your county councilmember are running for re-election (or for another office) in competitive races?  And what if you have an issue about which your PTA would contact your senator and delegates or county councilmember - can you do that?  Of course --- they are still your elected voice in the General Assembly or on the County Council. 
Or what if there is an event to which your senator and delegates (or county councilmember etc.) are typically invited in their official capacity - can they be invited?  Probably so -- as long as it's clear that their presence is because of the office they hold, not the office they seek.  No campaigning of any type - even the passing out of campaign materials, should be permitted UNLESS all the other candidates for office are also invited to appear.
Here are the basics to keep in mind.
As a PTA or while acting as a PTA representative you can NOT:
  • openly support a particular candidate
  • encourage others to support a particular candidate
  • host a PTA sponsored event to which you invite only one, or only a select few, candidates for office
  • share information about only one candidate for a particular office
As a PTA or PTA representative you CAN (and hopefully you will):
  • share candidate-neutral information about events and opportunities for your membership to learn about the candidates and issues
  • host a 'meet the candidates' type event or forum AS LONG AS you invite all candidates for a given office
  • post/share non-partisan resources for candidate/issue information -- i.e. the League of Women Voters "Voter Guide", a list of upcoming candidate debates and the like
  • what's candidate-neutral?  Mere notice that an event is happening is neutral, but only sharing information about one candidate's events, or ANY political literature - not neutral
What does that all really mean?  Some examples:
  • you (in your personal capacity) can go out and canvass for your chosen candidate for dog-catcher, but you really shouldn't do it wearing your "BestEver ES PTA" t-shirt
  • you can host a 'meet and greet' for your dog-catcher candidate, but don't post an invitation to it on your PTA listserv, or announce it at your PTA meeting
  • if your PTA invites one candidate for the "at-large" Board of Education seat to talk at a meeting, you have to invite them all (now, whether or not they accept -- that you can't control - you just have to issue the invitation equally and equitably)
  • if you have information about a public all-candidate event -- say a local civic group is sponsoring a candidate forum for one of the congressional seats - you can share or post that information through your PTA communication resources
  • notices about political fundraisers - those you should NOT circulate through PTA avenues
What do you do if a candidate contacts you -- as a representative of your PTA - and asks you to share information about them via your PTA resources?  It depends, a little bit.
  • political candidate literature  --- even accompanied by a PTA disclaimer 'we do not endorse or support this message' - I wouldn't do it.
  • mere notice of an event (no political literature)-- candidate X is having a townhall  - that's probably okay --- as long as you do it for everyone who asks, not just for one or a few.  I would also accompany that with a disclaimer.
  • What if a candidate wants to come speak at a meeting --- vs. you inviting them --- that's a little trickier. It's up to your PTA Board - but if you allow it, you MUST make clear the PTA did not invite the candidate, the PTA neither endorses nor supports the candidate, and if you decide to let them appear --- if it were me -- I'd reach out to all the other candidates for the same office and invite them as well.  Cover your bases.