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March 3, 2009

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The University Responds…

October 6, 2008

B. Joseph White, President of the University of Illinois, wrote a response to the ethics policy protest that was conducted last week.  I’ve copied that response in its entirety for anyone interested:

To: Members of the University Community

From: B. Joseph White

Re:  A Message Concerning University Employees and the Illinois State Ethics Act 

I write to you today with a simple message:

We, the leadership of the University of Illinois, will preserve, protect and defend the constitutionally guaranteed rights of every member of our University community, including, of course, freedom of speech and assembly. We will also preserve, protect and defend academic freedom, which is a core value of every great academic institution.  

Why am I communicating this assurance?  

Because the University Ethics Office, which reports to me, recently disseminated through its newsletter a briefing on the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act that was enacted in 2003.  

The newsletter is not a University policy statement. The purpose of the briefing was to familiarize us as state employees with the prohibited political activities section of the Ethics Act.    

Much of the briefing is simply informative about the state law. For example, it is not proper to use University resources to conduct political activity, nor is it proper to conduct certain political activities, such as soliciting contributions for a party or candidate, while on University time.

However, some of the newsletter’s content raised concerns among members of our community. The briefing cited certain political activities as prohibited that conflict, or appear to conflict, with fundamental freedoms.  One involves wearing a pin or T-shirt in support of a political party or candidate.  Another involves attending a rally on University property.  

Are such practices really prohibited by the Ethics Act? To date, the courts have given little if any guidance on the proper interpretation of the Ethics Act.  

I have heard from many people about this matter.  One of the most thoughtful suggested, and I agree, that University employees should be advised that they may engage in the following kinds of activities while on University property:

  •  Attend partisan political rallies, provided that the employees are not on duty
  •  Wear partisan political buttons, provided that employees at that time are neither on duty nor in the workplace of the University (many parts of campus are not workplaces) 
  •  Display partisan bumper stickers on their vehicles

Going forward, I remain concerned about possible conflicts between the Ethics Act and interpretations of its meaning and constitutionally protected freedoms and academic freedom.  

Accordingly, the Ethics Office, other members of my staff and I will work with state officials to ensure that interpretations of the Ethics Act do not restrict constitutionally guaranteed rights of state employees and, in the case of higher education and this University, academic freedom.

This mailing approved by:

The Office of the President


Follow Up on the Follow Up

October 3, 2008

I discovered that the ACLU is already involved and sent a strongly worded letter to the University President, demanding that he remove several items from the ethics policy.  I guess I was a little late on this, but hey – at least I’m keeping them updated on the situation, right? 😉

The letter from the ACLU requested that President White respond by the end of the workday on Monday, October 6th, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens!


Follow Up: The University of Illinois Shits on Your Freedom of Speech

October 3, 2008

I just wanted to update people about the political rally that was organized yesterday in response to the University of Illinois’ “Prohibited Political Actions” memo.  Today, those of us who attended the rally reported ourselves to the University Ethics Office (as per the requirement in the memo).  I also reported myself for contacting my government representatives in May/June of this year as part of an email/phone campaign organized by the ACLU in opposition to the new FISA bill.  There was some local news coverage of the event, including this story in the Daily Illini (i recommend you read the comments too).

I also just sent an email to the local ACLU office apprising them of the situation.  Here it is, in its entirety:

I wanted to make you aware of some recent developments at the University of Illinois.  On September 18th, the University Ethics Office sent out an email regarding “prohibited political action” that was said to apply to all U of I employees.  The list included:

 Preparing for or participating in any rally or event related to a specific political candidate, party, or referendum – this includes preparation and circulation of campaign materials, petitions, or literature

 Soliciting contributions or votes on behalf of a particular political party or candidate

 Assisting at the polls on behalf of any political party, candidate, or organization

 Surveying or conducting an opinion poll related to anticipating an election outcome, or participating in a recount challenge related to an election outcome

 Running for political office

The email specified that this was a list of things that were prohibited “while working, when on University property, while using University resources (e.g., phone, fax, paper, email, etc.), or when acting as a representative of the University.”  The ambiguous language regarding the status of certain employees (particularly graduate teaching and research assistants) seems to indicate that grad students who live on campus are prohibited from these things, and there is definitely some confusion about what constitutes “working” time and “acting as a representative” in the case of graduate and faculty positions.  The email also implied that the school will not be “policing” the campuses for these policy violations, and that individuals should report themselves or others to the University Ethics Office if there is a potential violation.  They further state that any contact with a government official should be reported to the ethics office, with the caveat that political communication made on “personal” time need not be reported.  As a graduate TA, I often work from home (grading papers and communicating with students) and this is done outside of normal campus hours.  As an active ACLU member, I also have contacted government officials from home (such as during the FISA email/phone campaign earlier this year).  There is no clear dividing line between what constitutes “personal” and “work” time for my fellow TAs and faculty.  It can also be argued that, as teachers, we are the “face” of the University even while not officially in the classroom.  Regardless of whether we actively position ourselves as representatives of the University, we have no control over how our students and other individuals perceive us outside of the classroom, which leaves a very large, problematic gray area.

The AAUP (American Association of University Professors) and GEO (Graduate Employees’ Organization) have both issued statements definitively condemning the ethics policy as stated in this email.  I would be more than happy to forward you their published statements as well as a copy of the original email from the Ethics Office.  Along with these statements, several graduate TAs organized a political rally yesterday (Thursday 10/2) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in response to the policy which received some local news coverage.  Many of the faculty and graduate students in attendance (including myself) also took it upon themselves to report their attendance at the rally to the Ethics Office in accordance with the policy.

So far, there has been no response to our actions from the University, but I wanted to make sure your office was aware of the situation.  As stated before, I would be happy to provide you with more information and documentation, and I’m sure that the graduate students who organized the rally yesterday would be more than happy to speak with you further.

Thank you very much for your time, and keep up the good fight!


Mark S. Barnes, Jr.


The University of Illinois Shits on Your Freedom of Speech

September 29, 2008

There’s an ongoing debate right now at the University of Illinois regarding university employees’ freedom of speech while on campus.  Recent communication from the University Ethics Office detailed several things that constituted “prohibited political activity.”  These were the listed items:

  • Preparing for or participating in any rally or event related to a specific political candidate, party, or referendum – this includes preparation and circulation of campaign materials, petitions, or literature
  • Soliciting contributions or votes on behalf of a particular political party or candidate
  • Assisting at the polls on behalf of any political party, candidate, or organization
  • Surveying or conducting an opinion poll related to anticipating an election outcome, or participating in a recount challenge related to an election outcome
  • Running for political office
  • The email also stated:

    In order to ensure compliance with state and federal lobbying laws, University policy requires employees’ communications with state, federal and locally elected officials be reported to the Office of Governmental Relations.

    As an active member of the ACLU, I have participated in email and phone campaigns this summer regarding a couple of different issues (not the least of which was the FISA bill that was passed near the beginning of the summer).  While I wasn’t representing the university in this capacity, the ambiguity of the language in the email from the ethics office causes me to question whether I should be reporting myself for contacting my elected representatives on those occasions.

    In protest of these ethics guidelines, a group of university employees will be contacting their state representatives to complain about the ethics policy’s violation of the constitution, then report ourselves.


    Rock the Vote?

    September 15, 2008

    I decided to update my voter registration address at a “Rock the Vote” booth at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, since I moved to Illinois from Florida last year.  After filling out the paperwork, I was told that everything was “taken care of” and I’d be getting my new voter ID card in the mail in the next few weeks.  Well, thank god I know better than to trust other people with something as important as my voting rights!

    Since I hadn’t received my new card in the mail yet, I decided to stop by the Champaign County Clerk’s office to check my registration status.  Surprise!  I wasn’t on the list!  Thankfully, I came prepared with a recent utility bill and photo ID, and the clerk registered and swore me in right there.

    I asked him about the missing registration forms, and he informed me that they weren’t receiving forms from some Rock the Vote and other registration events until months after the events took place.

    I hope this is a cautionary tale to anyone who registered or re-registered through a middle-man or a non-government organization.  Check your shit!  Make sure you’re actually registered and do it right now!  Find the website for your local election official and contact her/him if necessary.  Your voting rights are too important to leave in the hands of anyone else!  

    While I admire organizations who are attempting to register new voters, I’m deeply concerned about the fact that this paperwork is taking so long to get where it’s supposed to be!  I don’t know if this is an isolated situation or not, but either way, I feel I must reiterate: make sure you’re ready to vote in November!  Don’t wait!  You cannot register during the 28 days prior to an election, so time is running out!


    AP Trying to Stop Bloggers from Quoting their Content

    September 15, 2008

    In an apparent misunderstanding of what encompasses “fair use” the Associated Press has sent out take down notices to some prominent bloggers who have used quotes from articles they have published.

    A more detailed report can be read here.