Claiming their rights to support political candidates are under assault, some University of Illinois faculty and students held a rally for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama on campus to make their stand clear.
The rally Thursday was staged after an official school statement informing the community that a state ethics law bars state workers from political activities on university property.
“They’re trying to control our bodies and our voices any time we’re on campus,” said graduate student Dan Colson. “These policies are clearly a violation of our First Amendment rights.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois sent a letter Thursday to university president B. Joseph White, asking him to clarify the statement. The ACLU’s letter called for White to inform staff, students workers and graduate students that they can attend campaign rallies, wear political buttons and put partisan bumper stickers on their cars.
“Surely the university does not feel a need to stifle political expression that does not disrupt the workplace or the classroom,” said ACLU of Illinois Legal Director Harvey Grossman in a statement.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office said that state ethics law governs that state employees cannot do political work on state time using state resources but that law does not apply to students.
But Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Office of Executive Inspector General said students, not just employees, are barred from taking part in political rallies on campus.
“Anything that benefits a political campaign is prohibited on state property,” said Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general. Jimenez said the office may investigate complaints of political activity on campuses depending on severity.
University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy said school officials never intended to enforce the state ethics law. The university’s statement two weeks ago was part of an ongoing effort to communicate the law to its employees, he said.
“The purpose was to say, ‘Keep these provisions in mind, exercise common sense, and everything will be fine,’” Hardy said.
The Illinois situation is part of a “disturbing trend” likely to increase as the election nears, said Will Creeley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The Philadelphia-based group tracks academic freedom and free speech complaints on U.S. campuses. It recently sent a letter of protest after the University of Oklahoma sent an e-mail to students, faculty and staff directing them not to use university e-mail to endorse or oppose a candidate. The Oklahoma school also barred using e-mail to forward political humor and commentary.
The group has received complaints about bans on campaign activities at Iowa Western Community College and Fresno Pacific University in California, Creeley said.
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