My Shih Tzu Is a Republican (Campus Button Police Edition)


A short while back, the indispensable Inside Higher Education ran an interesting story about University of Illinois' "button police":

The university system's ethics office sent a notice to all employees, including faculty members, telling them that they could not wear political buttons on campus or feature bumper stickers on cars parked in campus lots unless the messages on those buttons and stickers were strictly nonpartisan. In addition, professors were told that they could not attend political rallies on campuses if those rallies express support for a candidate or political party.

Faculty leaders were stunned by the directives. Some wrote to the ethics office to ask if the message was intended to apply to professors; they were told that it was. At Illinois campuses, as elsewhere, many professors do demonstrate their political convictions on buttons, bumper stickers and the like.

Cary Nelson, a professor at the Urbana-Champaign campus and national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he believes he is now violating campus policy when he drives to work because he has a bumper sticker that proclaims: "MY SAMOYED IS A DEMOCRAT."

More here.

I've never bought into the idea of a university as a safe haven from the hurly-burly of everyday society, including  and maybe especially politics. This is particularly true of state-supported insitutions such as Illinois, where the space is totally embedded in politics of the most basic sort. I'm also always wary of attempts to stymie any sort of speech or discussion. They are almost always noxious (and almost always ineffective to boot).

However, I do find something intimidating and unseemly about people in power positions pushing a very particular political agenda, especially in a way that is not explicitly dialogic. I don't think there should be a ham-fisted policy such as Illinois', but as I've suggested before in connection to a different case of professorial political speech, actually foregrounding debate and disagreement, along with pushing actual pluralism, would make campuses much more interesting.

A related follow-up: In the town I live in in Ohio (and where my sons attend public school), there's a bond issue for a new high school on the November ballot. A few weeks ago, students were offered free pro-school bond T-shirts during lunch (no public funds were used to create the shirts, which were handed out by school administrators and teachers). Regardless of the point of view expressed on the T-shirt, is this acceptable behavior? Does the involuntary nature of K-12 education change the rules compared to college (that is, if going somewhere is mandatory, should the free speech of people be curtailed somehow)?

Update: Scott Stein sends along this interesting exchange about politics and the classroom from the blog When Falls the Coliseum. A snippet:

Two of my favorite professors in college were politically conservative. Sometimes their conservatism spilled over into the courses they taught. In fact, I would say that their conservatism was fundamental in some ways to what they were teaching.

This did not bother me or my friends at the time because we knew both of these people were spectacularly smart and interesting. And there was room in their classes to reach conclusions at variance to what the professors reached. They also avoided extraneous comments about controversial issues that could be divisive.

More here.