Ethics memo another free speech slight

It is appalling that in the midst of the most important election season in a generation, the University of Illinois has seen fit to tell thousands of instructors, employees and students that they may not participate in it.

According to a memo sent out last week to university employees, activities such as wearing political buttons or attending rallies could constitute a violation of an ethics policy that was originally intended to prevent university resources from being used for political purposes.

The memo, strictly interpreted, could be taken as a directive for university employees – including student employees – to not be politically active at any time, even off the clock.

Yes, even off the clock.

Whatever message was intended to be sent with this memo has been overshadowed by an idea that would be thought of as hilariously inept if it weren’t so outrageous.

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    Professor Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, characterized the University’s message as “bullshit.” Coming from an English professor, that says volumes about this memo’s total failure to respect the First Amendment rights of thousands of people.

    Quite a message to send, in the opinion of another professor who e-mailed this page Thursday, especially considering how much time and money has been invested in “branding” the University lately.

    Unfortunately, the University has struggled with free speech issues in recent years in its attempts to quell disagreement with the decision to retire Chief Illiniwek and the establishment of the Inclusive Illinois initiative. However, this memo raises far greater concerns.

    The only thing worse than cracking down on unpopular speech is cracking down on all speech. Ideology or party aside, does this university want to be known as the one where professors, even in the political science department, cannot attend political events? Or be known as the one with a bumper sticker patrol?

    Not only could this policy harm the free flow of information inside the classroom, it deprives students of the necessary skill of learning to deal with opinions that may be different from their own.

    Lawyers say messages like these have a “chilling effect” on speakers. Regardless of the likelihood of enforcement, this memo discourages university employees from exercising their rights.

    If the University of Illinois stands for anything, it should be civic engagement. It shouldn’t punish employees and faculty that use their own time and resources to get involved. It should hold them up as an example.