University of Illinois Responds to Widespread Complaints Against Ban on Political Activity

By October 6, 2008

FIRE, the ACLU, the AAUP, the National Association of Scholars, and the Illinois Association of Scholars all agree that the recent statement by the University of Illinois Ethics Office went too far in banning political expression and participation on University of Illinois campuses.

Here is the response from University of Illinois president B. Joseph White in its entirety:

To:     Members of the University Community
From:   B. Joseph White
Re:     A Message Concerning University Employees and the Illinois State Ethics Act

I write to you today with a simple message:

We, the leadership of the University of Illinois, will preserve, protect and defend the constitutionally guaranteed rights of every member of our University community, including, of course, freedom of speech and assembly. We will also preserve, protect and defend academic freedom, which is a core value of every great academic institution. 

Why am I communicating this assurance? 

Because the University Ethics Office, which reports to me, recently disseminated through its newsletter a briefing on the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act that was enacted in 2003. 

The newsletter is not a University policy statement. The purpose of the briefing was to familiarize us as state employees with the prohibited political activities section of the Ethics Act.   

Much of the briefing is simply informative about the state law. For example, it is not proper to use University resources to conduct political activity, nor is it proper to conduct certain political activities, such as soliciting contributions for a party or candidate, while on University time.

However, some of the newsletter’s content raised concerns among members of our community. The briefing cited certain political activities as prohibited that conflict, or appear to conflict, with fundamental freedoms.  One involves wearing a pin or T-shirt in support of a political party or candidate.  Another involves attending a rally on University property. 

Are such practices really prohibited by the Ethics Act? To date, the courts have given little if any guidance on the proper interpretation of the Ethics Act. 

I have heard from many people about this matter.  One of the most thoughtful suggested, and I agree, that University employees should be advised that they may engage in the following kinds of activities while on University property:

– Attend partisan political rallies, provided that the employees are not on duty

– Wear partisan political buttons, provided that employees at that time are neither on duty nor in the workplace of the University (many parts of campus are not workplaces)

– Display partisan bumper stickers on their vehicles

Going forward, I remain concerned about possible conflicts between the Ethics Act and interpretations of its meaning and constitutionally protected freedoms and academic freedom. 

Accordingly, the Ethics Office, other members of my staff and I will work with state officials to ensure that interpretations of the Ethics Act do not restrict constitutionally guaranteed rights of state employees and, in the case of higher education and this University, academic freedom.

This mailing approved by:
The Office of the President 

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign