local attorney says non profits have to carefully avoid political candidates
The controversy over the Obama re-election campaign's use of Big Bird in its ads is A very public example of what non profit organizations go through every election year, to try to avoid event he appearance of taking sides in partisan political fights, 1200 WOAI news reports.
The Obama campaign rolled out a TV ad featuring Big Bird, and began having volunteers dressed as the iconic Sesame Street character show up at Mitt Romney rallies, following Romney's mention of Big Bird in the first debate last week.
The non profit Children's Television Workshop, which creates Sesame Street, immediately fired off a letter to the Obama campaign and released a public statement demanding that the campaign immediately stop using their copyrighted character in their ads.
That was the right thing to do, according to attorney Katy David, who counsels non profits with the local firm of Strasburger Price Oppenheimer Blend.
"They are absolutely prohibited from intervening in any political campaign in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office," David told 1200 WOAI news.
She says even if the use of the non-profit's name or image is done completely without the knowledge, consent, or active participation of the non profit, she says the group's tax exempt status is at risk.
"That would be a serious violation of the tax rules that apply to them," she said. "They are smart to distance themselves from the ad that the campaign put together."
David says she helps non profits navigate these potentially very dangerous waters every election season. She cites one example in San Antonio a few years ago where a candidate ran for office touting his connections with a prominent local private school. She says the school begged the candidate to remove its logo from the candidate's web site and stop mentioning the school in campaign appearances, because even something as minor as a candidate's support for a school can jeopardize the school's tax exempt status.
She says the rules are even murkier when it comes to 'issue elections,' like Mayor Castro's high profile 'Pre-K for SA" sales tax increase proposal.
"They can say that they are in favor of Pre-K SA, but they cannot say they are in favor of Mayor Castro or any candidate," she said.
She says the non profit, while it can throw it's support behind Castro's proposal, has to carefully watch the wording of its comments. It can't say it supports the Mayor's political goals, it can't say it supports the mayor because he backs the Pre-K initiative. This is even though Castro is not himself on the ballot.
David says it is a very tough battle for non profits to 'stay between the ditches' during political campaigns, and the Big Bird controversy is a very public example of that.