Speech memo unacceptable

By Michael Verderame

Recently, UIUC faculty, staff, and graduate employees received an e-mail from the State Ethics Office warning us to avoid political activity (such as wearing a political T-shirt or button) while on University property or using University resources. While this policy does ban some inappropriate behavior (such as using an office photocopier to make campaign literature, a supervisor intimidating a subordinate, or a teacher bullying or discriminating against students who disagree with her politically), it goes much further than this, fundamentally striking at the notion of the university as a public forum. The policy forbids attending rallies on the Quad, displaying bumper stickers or buttons in offices, or even trying to persuade a friend to vote for your preferred candidate over coffee in the Union. Read literally, it would bar a graduate employee who lives on campus from wearing an Obama-Biden T-shirt in her own home.

While the Ethics Office assures us that it won’t police T-shirts and bumper stickers, the mere existence of the policy will have a chilling effect upon political discourse in the election season. Some instructors already avoid discussing controversial subject matter for fear of running afoul of the ban on political activity. But what’s disturbing about this e-mail is that it reminds us that it is up to the state to decide what we can wear or say when on campus. For the moment, bumper stickers and T-shirts may not be policed, but the e-mail makes clear that it is within the state’s authority to do so whenever it chooses. Employees at UIUC have fewer free speech rights than our peers at private institutions. For anyone still committed to the notion of the university as a space for the free exchange of ideas, that is unacceptable.