FIRE warns multiple universities that political speech bans could be unconstitutional

New York — The Foundation for Individual Rights inEducation created a political activity policy for colleges and universities toabide by in response to a string of complaints accusing colleges across thecountry of silencing student and faculty political expression.

FIRE, a nonprofit educational foundation, wants all public colleges anduniversities to acknowledge that students and student groups can expressthemselves politically on campus under the First Amendment and that facultyemployees enjoy the right to engage in partisan political speech when occurringoutside of their “employment-related” activities.

FIRE released the statement of policy on political activity for campusesOct.15 following several complaints that university administrations werestifling on-campus speech.

In recent incidents at the University of Texas, University of Illinois andUniversity of Oklahoma, administrators changed course in their policies inresponse to letters sent by FIRE or negative media attention.

At UT, the move to subdue political speech sparked national attention whenstudents Connor and Blake Kincaid failed to comply with the university’ssign policy and faced expulsion. The policy bans signs from being displayed indorm windows. After media outlets began reporting on the controversy surroundingthe sign policy, university President William Powers issued a statementsuspending the policy as of Oct. 9.

“We never wanted to make a big deal about this,” Connor Kincaid said in anAustin American-Statesman article. “We just wanted to be able to keep oursigns up until Election Day. We’re glad that we are doing just that.”

The president of the University Democrats, Zack Hall, said the twoUniversity Democrats members had an Obama sign in their dorm window that said”Vote Democrat” and listed early voting dates.

The students were asked four times by university officials to take down thesigns but refused. They were told Oct. 7 they would have to go to a judicialhearing. At the judicial hearing, Connor and Blake were given until 7 p.m. toremove the sign or they would not be cleared to register for springclasses.

“The application of the rule was not equal,” Hall said.

Hall said during football season, signs are everywhere and in one instance,the UT fight song was displayed across the windows of a dorm.

Hall received a call from university officials informing him that Powersdecided to allow students to post their signs on an interim basis during which acommittee would be formed to revise the policy.

“We’re really excited about the decision,” said Hall.”It’s good to know that good old-fashioned civil disobedience can goa long way.”

Administrators at Illinois and Oklahoma had a change of plans afterattention was brought to policies hampering political expression, too.

The ethics office at the University of Illinois sent a newsletter toemployees defining prohibited political activity. According to the policy,prohibited political activity included wearing political buttons and attendingon-campus rallies supporting a specific political candidate.

Adam Goldstein, Student Press Law Center legal advocate, said thatemployees were among those that the Supreme Court indicated did not surrendertheir rights “at the schoolhouse gate” in Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District. In 1969, the SupremeCourt established in Tinker that students have the right to freedom ofexpression at school as long as their expression does not cause”substantial disruption.”

“Employees have a right to core First Amendment speech, which istraditionally seen as political speech,” he said.

At the University of Oklahoma, students and faculty members received ane-mail from Nick Hathaway, executive vice president and vice president ofadministration and finance, saying that the university e-mail/network systemsmay not be used to endorse or oppose a candidate, including the forwarding ofpolitical humor/commentary.

FIRE sent a letter to the university expressing concern about the policy.University President David Boren responded that the university has taken noaction against any individuals and does not intend to take action against anyoneexercising their protected First Amendment freedoms.

No revised policy had been forwarded to students and faculty at theuniversity as of Oct. 15.