Memo retraction welcome and overdue

President B. Joseph White’s move yesterday to reassure the campus community about a vague and overly broad dictum concerning political activity by University of Illinois employees is something to celebrate.

In some ways, the university ethics office has been hamstrung about exactly how to enforce a state law passed in 2003 that was supposed to cover improper political behavior for every employee in the state of Illinois. Rightly citing the lack of specificity in the law as it pertains to students and the larger higher education community in addition to an unexplored path through the judiciary, there was every reason in the world to come down on the side of free speech.

But given that this entire mess was most likely a case of overzealous interpretation, one has to wonder what the ethics office was thinking in the first place, especially considering this institution’s less than stellar record with the First Amendment.

Several years ago, the administration spent half a million dollars on a lawsuit that was sparked when it tried to prevent faculty members from contacting prospective athletes with information about the debate concerning Chief Illiniwek. Even in the face of multiple court losses, the university continued to appeal the case, despite the fact that former chancellor Michael Aiken later retracted his original e-mail to faculty advising them of the matter just three months later.

History was close to repeating itself last week as the American Civil Liberties Union, the same organization which previously fought administrators, demanded that administrators back down from the ethics policy. With the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also calling for a retraction, another lawsuit was imminent.

After an equally overzealous action to ban Chief imagery from last year’s homecoming parade was reversed on free speech grounds, the administration should have known how big an issue this would become instead of trying to play it down, thus ignoring its own past.

But ignoring the past isn’t as bad as simply being out of touch in the first place.

Not recognizing how this ethics debacle fits into other campus controversies about state funding, a capitalism academy, Chief Illiniwek’s retirement and stereotype parties among other things is surprising and disappointing.

In the future, we hope that the university will not wait until it faces legal action to come to its senses about something so fundamental to the effectiveness of the higher education system.