Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Buttons and Bumper Stickers Banned at the University of Illinois

The University of Illinois has announced one of the most repressive policies in the country restricting political speech. According to administrators, all employees, including faculty, will be banned from attending campus rallies for candidates, prohibited from wearing any political buttons, and even outlawing political bumper stickers on their cars in campus parking lots.

This grotesque interpretation of the ethics rules is both unconstitutional and a clear violation of academic freedom. Everyone should condemn this idea and the repression of free speech on campus. Not only does this affect all staff and faculty (which would be bad enough), but it also affects many students who also work as employees.

This is not the first attack on free speech by the University of Illinois administration, as I note in my new book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies. In 2004, the U of I disciplined graduate student Tom Mackaman, a socialist candidate for the state legislature, because he sent an email press release about his candidacy via his student email account. The University of Illinois a created a new policy to prohibit similar political advocacy on campus, and university spokesperson Lex Tate even claimed that faculty would not be allowed to invite a political candidate to campus. Now the censors who run the University of Illinois administration want to expand the bans on political expression.

Here's a statement on the matter from Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professor and a professor emeritus at UIUC:

To: UI faculty at Chicago, Springfield, and Urbana

This month the University of Illinois Ethics Office informed faculty and staff that it is unethical to attend campus rallies for candidates running for public office, to wear buttons endorsing political candidates or political parties on campus, or to place comparable bumper stickers on cars to be parked in university-owned lots. Faculty are understandably concerned about the administration's critique of such forms of free speech and political expression as they have been exercised without controversy for years. 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. A prohibition on political bumper stickers can well cross a line and infringe on extramural political speech.

While we are unhappy with how the university has interpreted the state's ethics rules, we also have other fundamental concerns. 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. Political speech embraces not only buttons and bumper stickers but also the whole range of advocacy and debate that intensifies during political campaigns. As the rules stand, students can exercise their constitutional rights and attend rallies and wear buttons advocating candidates, but faculty cannot. National elections provide wonderful educational opportunities across a wide range of disciplines. Thus students 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.

Cary Nelson, National AAUP President  

Not only must this policy be immediately reversed, but those ultimately responsible for creating it should be fired or resign in disgrace. People opposed to intellectual freedom who blatantly violate the rights of others have no place in the administration at a university. This is one of the worst examples of political repression and censorship at a public college that I’ve ever seen.
To express your views on this policy, email University of Illinois President Joseph White at

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