Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bumper Stickers? Really?

Some issues are difficult. They feature the conflict of valid goods, a shortage of critical resources, or clashes of identity or behaviors so central to one's personhood that rational conversation becomes nearly impossible.

Other issues, by contrast, are so obvious that any sentient being should be able to dispose of them immediately. This is one of those.

According to IHE, the University of Illinois promulgated some ethics guidelines that, among other things, ban partisan bumper stickers on employees' cars. Non-partisan bumper stickers are fine. So “Just Do Me” is recognized as free speech, but “Obama '08” is over the line.*

Alrighty then.

The theory of constitutional interpretation underlying this could be described as 'obscure.' Even Justice Scalia has argued that political speech is entitled to the highest level of First Amendment protection. If we assume that employees pay for their own cars, and drive them both on campus and off, then I'd be at a loss to explain why a public employer should have the authority to monitor employees' bumpers for political content, and not for any other kind.

(It doesn't take much to establish a really slippery slope from there. If my car somehow represents the college, and therefore must be neutral wherever it goes, then one could easily argue that my front yard represents the college, too. After all, my neighbors know where I work. No yard signs for me! And what if a neighbor sees me going to vote? Best not to do that, either.)

The article quotes a spokesman for the university saying of the bumper sticker ban that “officially, it does apply.” As a card-carrying bureaucrat, I can attest that the word “officially” speaks volumes. Simply put, that's the standard signal for “even I don't really believe this, but I'm obligated to say it.” Officially, jaywalking is illegal. Officially, employees aren't supposed to take or make personal calls while at work. Officially, students are required to attend every meeting of every class.

The ethics regulations also go into less obvious areas, like wearing campaign buttons in class. I don't think I've ever seen a professor wear a campaign button in class, even going back to my own student days, but it's at least theoretically possible. My sense is that it would be bad practice, since it would only serve to distract the students from the task at hand, but I hardly see it rising to the level of actionable misconduct. And faculty office doors – also addressed in the policy – are famously rich with all manner of cartoons, stickers, opinions, and jokes, as well they should be. I wouldn't object to a policy saying that anyone who affixes stickers to their door is responsible for removing them when they move out, but that's about cleanliness, rather than content.


If the America in which I believe has any reality, this policy will be relegated to the dustbin of history posthaste. You don't give up your freedom of speech when you work for a public university. I know we've lost our bearings over the last several years, but honestly.

* There's also the commonly-exploited distinction between 'partisan' and 'political.' Technically, both the NRA and are 'nonpartisan,' since neither is officially a part of a political party, but they aren't fooling anybody, and aren't particularly trying. Perversely enough, most negative messages are non-partisan, since they rely on attacking rather than endorsing. “Vote Obama” is partisan; “Stop McCain” isn't, since one could presumably stop McCain by organizing a write-in campaign for, say, Gumby. Expunging positive messages, while allowing negative ones to flourish, strikes me as unhelpful.