Beware the Button Police

U. of Illinois tells professors they can't have bumper stickers or attend campus political rallies -- but then says it will use "common sense" on enforcement.
September 24, 2008

Sporting an Obama or McCain button? Driving a car with one of the campaigns' bumper stickers? You might need to be careful on University of Illinois campuses.

The university system's ethics office sent a notice to all employees, including faculty members, telling them that they could not wear political buttons on campus or feature bumper stickers on cars parked in campus lots unless the messages on those buttons and stickers were strictly nonpartisan. In addition, professors were told that they could not attend political rallies on campuses if those rallies express support for a candidate or political party.

Faculty leaders were stunned by the directives. Some wrote to the ethics office to ask if the message was intended to apply to professors; they were told that it was. At Illinois campuses, as elsewhere, many professors do demonstrate their political convictions on buttons, bumper stickers and the like.

Cary Nelson, a professor at the Urbana-Champaign campus and national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he believes he is now violating campus policy when he drives to work because he has a bumper sticker that proclaims: "MY SAMOYED IS A DEMOCRAT."

Mike Lillich, a spokesman for the university system, said that President Joseph White was asked about the ethics memo this week and that he understands why faculty members are concerned. "The campus traditions of free speech are very different from the DMV," said Lillich.

White told professors that he thinks "this is resolvable," and that they should use "common sense." But for now, Lillich said of the policy sent to all employees, "officially, it does apply."

Nelson and other professors are circulating a draft statement outlining their objections to the ethics rules. "Although these rules are not at present being enforced, the AAUP deplores their chilling effect on speech, their interference with the educational process, and their implicit castigation of normal practice during political campaigns," the draft says.

It adds: "The Ethics Office has failed to recognize and accurately define both the special context of a university and the role of its faculty members. Campus education requires that faculty and students have comparable freedom of expression on political subjects. This applies not only to obvious contexts like courses on politics and public policy in a variety of departments but also to the less formal settings in which faculty and students interact.... As the rules stand, students can exercise their constitutional rights and attend rallies and wear buttons advocating candidates, but faculty cannot.... [S]tudents might attend campus rallies and later analyze them in a classroom. Are faculty members to have no experience of the rallies themselves? Finally, it is inappropriate to suggest that faculty members function as employees whenever they are on campus. Faculty often move back and forth between employee responsibilities and personal acts within the same time frame."

Debate over the appropriate limits for political activity on campus is nothing new, of course. Most controversies involve actions that could be viewed as aligning an institution with a candidate. For instance, this week, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst called off a chaplain's efforts to recruit students to work for the Obama campaign and to get credit for the experience. But while such disputes come up every election year, they tend not to involve the bumper stickers on professors' cars or the buttons on their lapels.

The American Council on Education publishes guidance each election season on the latest legal standards about political activity and higher education. For instance, the council recommends that colleges not engage in activities such as endorsing candidates, placing signs on behalf of candidates on university property, or reimbursing university employees for contributions to specific candidates. Such actions could imply an endorsement by the institution, the guidance notes. With regard to activity by individual faculty members and administrators, the council said that it was important to avoid actions that "would be perceived as support or endorsement by the institution."

Ada Meloy, general counsel at the American Council on Education, said that the guidelines published by the ACE focus on Internal Revenue Service requirements for tax-exempt organizations. While she saw nothing there that would limit a professor's right to wear a button or attend a rally, she said that Illinois statutes may impose more limits.

The norm for regulation of faculty members is to bar the use of institutional or public funds or facilities on behalf of candidates, she said. One possibility, she said, may be that Illinois is especially sensitive to these issues because Obama is one of its senators.

Lillich, the system spokesman, said he knew of no controversies over inappropriate political activity that might have prompted the rules.


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