The Hill op-ed: Trump Tweets, Tax Law and Alleged University 'Propaganda', by Samuel D. Brunson (Loyola-Chicago) & Ellen P. Aprill (Loyola-L.A.):
On the morning of July 10, 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status ... and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!” He tweeted in reaction to the broad opposition by the university community to the administration’s announcement that foreign students would have to take at least one in-person class or be denied permission to stay in the United States.
Trump’s tweets set off a firestorm of reactions focusing on the implicit political threat against free speech. Within a few days, what Trump had dubbed “Propaganda” resulted in his administration changing its policy. Nonetheless, identifying errors in his tweets remains important.
Trump’s misunderstanding of the applicable tax law also helps us better understand both the rules for tax-exempt colleges and universities and the important role they play in our society. ...
While in theory this prohibition on targeting for ideological beliefs could come up against the public policy doctrine — an entity might espouse an ideological belief contrary to fundamental public policy — that possibility does not arise here. The position of the Trump administration regarding visas for foreign student does not amount to fundamental public policy and, thus, opposition to it, does not violate the public policy doctrine.
The president’s tweet, however, has asked the Treasury Department to target universities based on their ideological beliefs. It is the president, not the university community, that seeks to violate applicable law by asking federal tax administrators to examine colleges and universities on the basis of the schools’ principles and beliefs.