The Charity Commission told a charity to seek legal advice after it became embroiled in a row with Ukip over whether it supported the party.
A case report on the Gladstone Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, published by the commission today, says a photo of the library that included a nearby statue of the library’s founder, the former Prime Minister William Gladstone, was used in Ukip’s Welsh assembly manifesto.
The report says a Ukip candidate later tweeted a claim that the library was supporting Ukip. The charity, which was registered with the commission in 1989 with the objects of advancing religion and education, issued a press release refuting the claim and denying that the charity had given permission for the photo to be used.
The press release said: "The policies and principles on which Ukip is based are far from the ideals of William Gladstone."
The press release sparked interest in local media and online, with 22,000 tweets, and 7,438 Facebook comments on the issue appearing. Peter Francis, the library’s warden, turned to the commission for advice.
In report, the commission says: "The expression of a view of Ukip in the press release made it a political statement and unintentionally drew the charity into a party political debate."
Charities are prohibited by law from being party political and the commission recommended the charity seek legal advice.
The press release was later withdrawn and the charity released a statement clarifying its position.
Francis said the charity was displeased to find the photograph had been used in Ukip’s manifesto, but acknowledged the response might have gone too far.
"A very large number of the library’s online followers responded with some vehemence to any suggestion that Gladstone’s Library would be supportive of Ukip and the library put up a statement on its website disassociating itself from Ukip, perhaps slightly overstepping the mark in its rebuttal," he said.
"Ukip consequently suggested that the library was electioneering during the Welsh assembly campaign and this could be contrary to its charitable status."
He said the commission’s advice had been "helpful and supportive".
But he added: "The incident prompts questions as to how far a charity can control or be responsible for opinion related to politics voiced on social media by its supporters, especially when part of the objectives of the charity are to promote democracy and interest in current affairs."
The charity said it would discuss commission guidance on campaigning and political activity at its next annual general meeting, something the commission’s report said Francis felt was particularly necessary because the charity had recently expanded its objects to include the encouragement of research, writing and debate on Gladstone’s core subjects.
The report says charities should be especially aware of guarding their independence during elections.
"The guiding principle of charity law in terms of elections is that charities must be, and be seen to be, independent from party politics," it says.
"A charity must steer clear of explicitly comparing its views (favourably or otherwise) with those of the political parties or candidates."