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Editorial: Universities are not the place to inhibit free speech

That John McCain or Barack Obama pin may only generate a few comments while grocery shopping or attending the neighborhood yard sale, but wearing the button in the classroom could get a professor punished at the University of Illinois, according to a university memo sent out last month.

Then, as professors and graduate student employees rebelled, turning themselves in for such violations as wearing the aforementioned pin or — quite scandalously — driving a car with a candidate’s bumper sticker, the university diluted its policy. Before long, the university’s ethics office said employees would not be “punished” per se, but such acts might warrant disciplinary action because the state of Illinois doesn’t allow university employees to engage in partisan politics on campus.

By Tuesday, amid cries of infringement on employees’ First Amendment rights, university officials watered down the policy even more, letting the soggy mass collapse in a wave of backpedaling embarrassment. They said they wouldn’t enforce such a policy, the Brown Daily Herald reported, saying it was the state’s responsibility instead.

While it was good for the University of Illinois to acknowledge that punishing employees for speaking their mind oversteps the institution’s authority over a person’s right to free speech, the institution should have thought of that before sending the memo. Enacting disciplinary action on an employee for what he or she chooses to wear is wrong, even if it involves partisan politics.

Once a professor is banned from wearing a candidate’s pin, who’s to say that other forms of dress wouldn’t be banned? It’s OK for a postsecondary institution to offer suggestions in these areas — provided they’re justified — but there is no need to penalize employees for expressing themselves.

It’s perfectly understandable if a university advises employees against wearing or making blatant displays of partisanship while representing the school. After all, a university is supposed to be a haven for free thought, the acquisition of knowledge and scholarly debate, and a student may feel uncomfortable participating in the classroom if the keeper of his or her grade makes every effort to show how ideologically opposed he or she is to the student.

Like Illinois, Section 104.31 and Section 110.223 of Florida’s statutes prohibit certain displays of partisanship. There’s no harm in wearing a pin, but the statues stipulate university employees shouldn’t allow their feelings to create a hostile environment, and that’s where universities have to rely on their employees to exercise good judgment. For employees unsure of how to express their ideologies within these bounds, university-issued suggestions could come in handy.

However, universities should relegate these suggestions to exactly that — clear and flexible guidelines — rather than taking on the role of Big Brother and policing employees’ attire.