Don’t Touch My Button

Academic freedom does not extend to politics in University of Illinois schools, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of the main reasons behind tenure just kicked the bucket.

According to an email sent out to faculty and staff at UIC this week, they can no longer wear partisan buttons or park their cars on campus if they have partisan bumper stickers. Presumably violaters will be sanctioned and possibly even towed!

On the one hand, faculty positions can be seen as ones with undue influence on youth and therefore a button in the classroom represents certain kinds of ethical questions. On the other, a vehicle is personal property unrelated to university service and unconnected to said influence. How exactly is a bumper sticker going to negatively impact one’s ability to teach objectively or for students to learn in the same fashion?

This issue represents another step in the policing of faculty behavior beyond the bounds of the university that prompted the creation of tenure in the first place and that is why it is important. While many businesses have rules about political discussion in the workplace, we cannot forget the particular history of the university, the state, and freedom of expression nor that the University of Illinois is regulating that expression down to the sign above your exhaust pipe.

What is most interesting to me in this case is that the University felt emboldened to police its faculty and staff’s political expressions to the minutiae of a bumper sticker. Anyone who worked in WS during the primaries is fairly clear that unspoken policies about which political paraphernalia you could actively be seen sporting and which you would likely be shunned for having ruled hiring decisions, civility in staff meetings, and in one case I know of, who got TAs and who did not. (Despite other blogs who claim these things never happen, I have enough reports from colleagues, students, and my own witnessing of events to wonder what utopic hole they have stuck their heads in and whether or not there will be a uni when they finally pull them back out with a big ol’ pop.) However, the University of Illinois bold step of putting it in writing takes political policing out of the realm of innuendo and individual departments/leadership styles and into university sanctioned policy.

How exactly is this policy going to be applied?

  • Will faculty whose teaching or research is too radical for students or administrators be targeted? After all, its much easier to slowly widdle away someone’s sense of academic freedom through perpetual sanction for ridiculous non-issues then to question their ability to teach or do research when they are tenured or otherwise showing vital contribution to department and Uni.
  • Will the Horowitzian Republican students stake out the parking lot making their little lists of liberal faculty’s cars and turning it in to Campus Safety?
  • Will students who are getting bad grades, having diversity conflicts with certain disciplines or faculty who teach them, claim they saw their professor or chair taking off a button on the way into the building? Will they get their disgruntled friends to corroborate it?
  • Or will it be left to partisan parking lot attendants and bored work study students to roam the faculty parking structure looking for offending stickers and putting their plates on permanent ban?
  • What if you drive your partner or spouse’s car into work that day without checking the bumper first? Will it be like photo radar where you can take the Uni to court for unequal treatment under the law (ie that everyone is not being busted equally) and sanction for a “crime” actually committed by someone else?

The ridiculousness, the wasted labor, and the potential for abuse abounds.

And where exactly does it stop? Will they ban faculty from participating in silent protests for peace, anti-rape vigils, or heated intellectual debates on the war effort in student activity sponsored events? If we participate in any number of political charged events closely related to the curriculum of studies programs, whether WS, ES, or International Studies, will the tone of the event be weighed for its political content and some of us sanctioned for seeming too partisan?

These are the real issues we supposedly dealt with over 30 years ago on campus. Just because the University of Illinois has chosen to make their statement non-partisan does not mean it any less abusive or useful to those who wish to target certain people, groups, and political ideas.

Politics outside of the classroom is nobody’s business in a democracy. We are all entitled to have political opinions and political affiliations as long as they do not interfere with our work or incite violence against targeted groups. It seems that one of the legacies of the current administration is a growing intolerance to freedom of thought and expression; if you cannot be free in an institution of higher learning then where exactly are you supposed to develop critical thinking skills?

While you ponder that, I have to go scrape off the Visualize Swirled Peas bumper sticker with the drooling baby that kind of looks like a political leader off the back of my car lest someone think it is a partisan political statement and not just that I am easily amused by word play. (read more about this here.)


  • REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
  • Brotherhood of the Bald Bumper Sticker
  • Kent State. John Lu
  • unattributed
  • Wonder Woman “The Trouble with Robots” 1.137 (1963) Ross Andru
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    9 thoughts on “Don’t Touch My Button

    1. This doesn’t make any sense. Whatsoever. Not being able to park on campus with partisan bumper stickers or wearing buttons on campus? I wonder whether it is or will become illegal to hold rallies, teach-ins and conferences on campus, certain classes taught, certain topics discussed. And in my university, there are plenty of Christian evangelists and graphic anti-abortion displays: will they be banned as well?

    2. as I was writing, I thought about the post on Western Civ and thought: yep, in roads already. From the econ to academic freedom it seems we have time warped.

    3. Amazing. I once had a colleague with a life size poster of Ollie North on his office wall! Intimidating? He said when I arrived: “I have posters like this, and you will clearly have very different posters, and that is why we will be able to attract students of all different kinds to this program.” It is making me feel nostalgic – the era was so comparatively free.

    4. yeah. I think about all the images I have put on my door or on my class posters that have generated buzz and brought in people or encouraged closeted faculty/students to come by to say hello and I think, what now?And that magnet business just seems wishy-washy to me . . . but I bet UIC will use that as an excuse to say they are not limiting anyone beyond the campus itself.

    5. I keep thinking about this. One of the things about not being able to discuss politics in class is not being able to have reality based teaching. That means all people hear is what the media serves up, and “research” is rumors and conspiracy theories, and so on. The whole business is so wrong headed it is unbelievable … everything but creationism and general xenophobia being “tendentious” or some such thing … FREAKY!

    6. I do think that reasoned, evidence based, balanced discussion about politics is a reasonable thing on a college campus and makes for more informed voters. Just writing some of the posts I have lately, without being able to post the evidence b/c of contractual obligations, requests, or promises made, I’ve thought: I could make all this stuff up and some people would not question it. Just because I didn’t and don’t does not mean that other people in the blogworld and in the media are not dealing in half truths and, as you say, “conspiracy theories.” Even John McCain’s camp is circulating commercials based on innuendo and half and/or no truths . . . but honestly profacero, I am most concerned about the implications for academic freedom in general. Where is the line once we say somethings are off limits on campus including buttons and bumper stickers?

    7. Academic freedom? What about citizens’ freedom?Federal employees are forbidden from taking part (donating, or public lobbying) in campaigns. But faculty as state employees? C’mon, the main job of a state university president is to suck up to the state legislators and governor and U.S. Senator (for earmarks). No political virginity there. And what about the kids – shouldn’t they see some reality-based political debate? What’s so precious about the students’ ignorance? It seems that parents and legislators like seeing their children kept ignorant about the world at large. What is the next step – barring "Darwin fish" car decorations?This all fits nicely with the abysmal ignorance of the Bill of Rights displayed by students and the general public. I don’t deal with undergraduates, as I teach at a medical school. The foreign graduate students and medical residents tend to be more informed about history, politics, current events than their American counterparts.I used to make fun of the grumpy old men (and a few women) who complained about how uninformed the current crop of students was, compared to the "old days". No more. I am a grumpy middle aged woman.

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