At U. of I., a question of supporting candidates on campus

By October 3, 2008

Students and professors at the University of Illinois decided to rally for Barack Obama on the Urbana-Champaign campus Thursday to make clear their stand on an increasingly controversial question as the November elections approach: Is it legal for employees and students at state colleges to express support for political candidates while on campus?

The university’s administration has sparked outrage by telling faculty, staff and graduate students that a 5-year-old state law designed to prevent state workers from campaigning for candidates on state time or with state resources meant they could not express support for candidates or parties through pins, T-shirts or bumper stickers while on campus. Nor could they attend any political rally or event on campus, the administration said.

“They’re trying to control our bodies and our voices any time we’re on campus. These policies are clearly a violation of our 1st Amendment rights,” said Dan Colson, an English graduate student who, along with other students, professors and free-speech experts, has lashed out.

Colson and others argue the University of Illinois was unfairly expanding state law and that academic freedom meant campus communities should not be held to the same standards as other state employees.

Tom Hardy, a University of Illinois spokesman, said Thursday that the university only wanted to inform its employees of the law and had no intention of enforcing it. The university, he said, would take no action against participants in the pro-Obama rally.

But the governor’s Office of Executive Inspector General, which investigates ethical violations, said it would act on complaints of political activity on college campuses depending on their severity.

And it delivered a sweeping twist, saying the state law meant that university students, not just employees, were prohibited from participating in political rallies on campus-an assertion at odds with the University of Illinois’ interpretation of the law.

“Anything that benefits a political campaign is prohibited on state property,” said Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general. The results of any investigations of campus activity would be turned over the university’s board of trustees with recommendations for discipline, including possible dismissal, Jimenez said.

The state attorney general’s office said it was unclear how the state law applied to university employees and whether it applied to students.

Similar controversies are surfacing in other states, according to Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that advocates for free speech on college campuses. The University of Oklahoma, for example, drew criticism last month when it told employees and students that they could not use university e-mail to endorse or oppose a candidate or to forward political humor and commentary.

Hardy said the University of Illinois outlined the restrictions on political activity two weeks ago as part of an ongoing effort to communicate the state ethics law to its employees, even though it views them as different from other state workers.

“The purpose was to say, ‘Keep these provisions in mind, exercise common sense, and everything will be fine,’ ” Hardy said of an e-mail sent to all employees and graduate students.

But critics said the move could have a chilling effect on free speech.

Colson, who helped organize Thursday’s rally, which he said drew nearly 50 participants, said he could understand the state limiting university employees from campaigning while working. But he saw it as overly restrictive to prohibit them from wearing of pins and T-shirts and from engaging in political activity on campus outside of work.

Cary Nelson, an English professor, has circulated memos on campus decrying the policy. He has a bumper sticker that proclaims “MY SAMOYED IS A DEMOCRAT,” and wears an Obama pin to campus class.

To defy the restrictions, he recently articulated his pro-Obama stance to a class, adding that he would never evaluate them based on their political views.

“Academic freedom allows us to reveal our political views if we want,” Nelson said.

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Schools: University of Oklahoma University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Cases: University of Oklahoma: Ban on E-mailing Political Humor or Commentary