Thursday, September 25, 2008

Political Expression vs. Free Speech on Campus: Where Do Professors Draw the Line?

I almost never discuss politics on this blog, at least in terms of taking one side or another. I'll talk about what I'd like to see in government--and take Those Currently In Charge to task if I don't feel like they're living up to that, but you'll almost never see me come out in favor of a specific candidate or party.

That's by design, by the way. My opinion is that educators should remain outwardly apolitical if at all possible. The subject doesn't come up in most classes anyway (it's certainly unlikely to see the light of day in my music ensembles, and I doubt it would ever be pertinent in College Algebra either), and it can be intimidating to students if they see their professor's office door sporting signs for a particular candidate (and even more so if the prof is wearing a button in class). Some might say that political science professors in particular have little choice but to divulge their views, because it's part of of the subject matter, but I would counter that people in that discipline might have to be even more careful to maintain a sense of balance, lest their class morph into Indoctrination 101.

It's an even bigger issue for me in my public-school job, because I'm a "teacher of choice." In other words, as a private instructor (a lot of the rest of the education world might call what I do "tutoring," but it goes beyond that, since I don't just help people who are failing or behind in their work), people don't have to study with me--they choose to do so. Some students whom I can't fit in during the day come to the house for lessons, and you'd best believe that my house never sports a political yard sign of any sort; I'd hate to think that someone might just stop coming because I don't support the candidates that they do, but in today's polarized political atmosphere, it's certainly possible. (I rarely even discuss politics with my friends for the same reason, saving my gripes for the kinds of things done by the government that nearly everybody hates; there's plenty of common ground there, as you might imagine.)

But some people would ask, "What about free speech?" Sure, I'm all about that, but I don't think that it necessarily needs to be commingled with the workplace; there's the entire rest of the day to discuss such things. But some people would disagree, and some of those people may be running into problems if they teach at the University of illinois, where the administration is cracking down on overt political expression:
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.

[...]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.”
In light of what I said earlier, the bulk of this policy doesn't bother me (and as noted above, if people do use common sense, there shouldn't be too many problems), especially in regard to the buttons, office door signs, etc. But the bumper sticker part is probably going a little far, because it's not like the car is a permanent fixture on campus in the manner of an office door. And besides, it's not like most students will know what car belongs to which professor, unless said prof is seen entering or exiting the car (or unless the parking place has a sign with his/her name on it).

Read the whole thing, including the comments, which cover a wide spectrum. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites, from someone who goes by "malclave:"
My take on this... professors should NOT be allowed to promote their own political beliefs to students while lecturing, during office hours, or at other times while officially engaged in the student-teacher role. Discussion of political issues in general, of course, is fine, depending on the course. I never really did care what my Physics professor thought about the roles of the political parties in influencing economic policy.

So, take that button off when you’re teaching. If your laptop has a political bumper sticker on it, either cover it up when you’re on university time, or leave it locked in your office desk. Especially if it’s a public university.

Other than that, you have the same rights to political speech as anyone else.
Hat tip: Althouse, where the hostess notes that the university might be using the rule to hide a lack of political diversity among its own faculty. Also, commenter "Chip Ahoy" notes:
That still leaves t-shirts, jean patches, posters in classrooms, writing on windows, placards, windshield sunscreens with political messages, flags, political films run in classrooms, hats, coffee mugs with political messages, shoes with names written on them, parrots trained to say things, biased school plays, invited speakers, canes with candidate's names running up the length, names 'accidentally' slipped into daily roll call, subliminal messages inserted into ordinary messages over the PA system, mass text messaging, scarves, belts, ties, shoe laces, names stenciled onto seats.
Funny. So what do you think? Does the policy go too far, or would it be OK without the bumper sticker portion? Should professors talk partisan politics at all, or should that be saved for when they're not "wearing the professor's hat," so to speak? Fire away in the comments.

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