Graduate students rally in act of “civil disobedience”

By Sarah Small

A pro-Barack Obama rally planned in response to the political expression policy for University employees began Thursday afternoon on the Quad.

The event will serve as an act of “civil disobedience” for Dan Colson, a teaching assistant and doctoral student in English, and some of his colleagues.

Colson is organizing the rally to serve as a statement in response to a newsletter sent two weeks ago from the University Ethics Office that reminded faculty of appropriate political expression for state employees, which included any employees at the University.

“In short, this rally is an act of civil disobedience to demonstrate to whoever writes these policies that they don’t own our bodies or our minds,” Colson said.

Since the newsletter was sent Sept. 18, faculty members have expressed concern that their First Amendment rights are in violation.

“I think it’s fair to say the Ethics Office’s most recent monthly newsletter has caused frustration that suddenly our bodies are owned,” Colson said.

Tom Hardy, spokesman for the University, said the policy in the newsletter is not University policy but state law.

Under the State Officials and Employers Ethics Act, “state employees may not, on state-compensated time, show preference to a political party or candidate,” said Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general for Illinois.

“For student-employees, faculty and staff is the question of whether this is state law or an overzealous interpretation by the University?” Colson asked.

Jimenez said that in order for action to be taken against the protesting graduate students, someone must first file a complaint against them.

Colson said Tuesday that some of the graduate student employees intend to “self-report” their own violations to the University Friday afternoon. He added that some other faculty members have already been reporting their own violations.

“We have to receive every complaint and decide what to do with it,” Jimenez said.

In the event that someone filed a complaint against the graduate students participating in the rally, the Office of the Executive Inspector General would investigate the issue, but it would be the responsibility of the University to administer disciplinary action.

“If the question is: ‘Are the campaign button police on their way?’ The answer is ‘no’,” Jimenez said.

Colson said he does not expect much response from the University, but hopes for their good faith.

“It’s sad to me that a rally to support political expression on a campus where the chancellor sends an e-mail encouraging political expression has to be an act of civil disobedience,” Colson said Wednesday.

Jimenez said that, with any job, employers are subjected to certain codes of conduct.

“Ninety-nine percent of state employees are free to do whatever they want not on state-compensated time,” Jimenez said. “But no one is entitled to a job; sometimes we have to make sacrifices.”

Graduate students are in a difficult position because they fall into the category of students and employees.

“In our daily lives we move from being students to employees to back to students again,” Colson said.

“If the University wants to define us as an employee every time whether we’re on campus, we need to be very scared.”