‘Chicago Tribune’ Highlights FIRE’s Work Defending Political Speech

By October 3, 2008

An article in today’s edition of the Chicago Tribune further investigates the outrage among many at the University of Illinois over the September 2008 edition of Ethics Matter, a "newsletter from the University of Illinois Ethics Office." The memo, which has caused widespread outrage among faculty, suggests that a whole host of political activity is simply out of bounds for faculty members.

As the article reports:

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.

The reaction of students and faculty has been to express their disapproval of the college’s interpretation by writing articles and op-eds, and hosting partisan political rallies wherein they effectively "dare" the university to enforce the policy. As the article notes, students and professors held a rally for presidential contender Barack Obama yesterday for this explicit purpose.

One of the more outrageous aspects of this case so far is the reaction of the university in the wake of this controversy. Rather than taking a principled stand, the university has chosen to state publicly that its intention was only to bring the law to the attention of its employees, but that it had no intention of enforcing it. Indeed, University of Illinois President B. Joseph White recently appeared on Chicago Public Radio and stated matter-of-factly that everyone on campus needed to simply "use common sense" to determine what they could or could not say or do regarding political activity.

FIRE hears this argument all the time from college administrators who harbor egregious speech codes. The fact of the matter is that maintaining draconian and overbroad policies like this creates a chilling effect on speech. It is for this exact reason that so many faculty members have chosen to publicly challenge the memo in an attempt to rout such an outcome.

Just as bizarre is the interpretation of the Governor’s Office of Executive Inspector General which, according to the Chicago Tribune article, recently "delivered a sweeping twist, saying the state law meant that university students, not just employees, were prohibited from participating in political rallies on campusan assertion at odds with the University of Illinois’ interpretation of the law."

As FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley told the Tribune, "Any ban on student-organized political rallies on public university property is presumptively unconstitutionaland itself unethicalas it would contradict decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence upholding the First Amendment rights of students on public campuses."

These problems follow on the heels of FIRE cases at a number of other colleges, including the University of Oklahoma, where community members were told they could not even use their school e-mail accounts to forward political humor and commentary.

FIRE will continue to monitor this situation. As always, we will be actively engaged in the fight for a speedy restoration of First Amendment rights on campus at the University of Illinois and elsewhere.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign