Maine University System Seeks to Curb Professors’ Free-Speech Rights

screenshot from The Nutty Professor, the popular 1963 movie starring Jerry Lewis in a Jekyll-Hyde role
Those nutty professors!
Maine's public universities have drafted a new policy on "Institutional Authority on Political Matters" that appears to infringe on the rights of employees to share their views and expertise.

Concerned that the robust exercise of political speech could hurt its nonprofit status, Maine’s state university system is working on a new policy that appears to broadly bar employees from becoming involved in political activities on the universities’ time and dime.

But some professors worry that the new policy will squelch their rights to free speech by preventing them from talking to, informing, or lobbying lawmakers, students, and the general public.

In a recent Bangor Daily News report, Nick McCrea writes that the University of Maine System re-examined its free-speech and civility policies for the first time in more than 40 years, in response to  a request from student representatives after the 2016 elections.

In March 2017, university trustees approved a new version of the existing free-speech policy.

Referencing the rights to free expression and assembly “as enshrined in the U.S. and Maine State Constitutions,” the policy stated that speech that violates the law, such as defamation, would be prohibited.

“Free speech requires tolerance for diversity of opinion and respect for an individual’s right to express his or her beliefs, however unpopular they may be, without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanction,” the policy noted. “[C]ivility and mutual respect will not be used to justify restricting the discussion or expression of ideas or speech that may be disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the University community…. [O]ne person’s claim to exercise his or her right to free speech may not be used to deny another person’s right to free speech.”

According to the Bangor Daily News report, the revised policy “was met with little controversy or resistance.” But less than a year later, the trustees are considering further changes, in the form of “a new policy on ‘Institutional Authority on Political Matters,’ which states that all legislative advocacy must be coordinated through the chancellor’s office, and only by certain high-level employees.”

Administrators fear employees who endorse political causes or candidates might endanger the school system’s tax-exempt status and its funding.

“Pretty much anything of import ends up being political in a democracy or republic.” –Jim McClymer, faculty union president

“Jim Thelen, the university system’s lead attorney, said he isn’t aware of any public university losing its nonprofit status because of political action by its employees, but added that ‘all of the IRS guidance says that if you engage in partisan politics or back candidates, consequences could be loss of federal funding, or tax-exempt status,'” reports the Bangor daily’s McCrae. “He said the University of Maine System shouldn’t be the one to test those waters.”

As McCrea describes it, the proposed policy permits employees below the level of president to express their views on political or legislative issues “as long as they indicate that the views they’re expressing are their own and not the university’s.” The policy prohibits any university employee from “engaging in political activity on his or her work time,” while acting in an official capacity, or while “in or on UMS property.”

When a draft of the new policy began circulating among faculty members, McCrea reports, red flags went up.

Writes McCrea:

Under the proposed policy, employees below the level of president can express their views on political or legislative matters as long as they indicate that the views they’re expressing are their own and not the university’s. The policy also prohibits university employees from “engaging in political activity on his or her work time,” while acting in their official capacity, or being “in or on UMS property.”

Jim McClymer, president of the faculty union Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, said he’s fielded many concerns about the proposed policy.

While the policy appears to protect professors’ ability to speak about sensitive political issues in the classroom, he said, faculty members worry that some of its restrictions will hinder their ability to use their research and knowledge to benefit their students or the state.

“Seems to prohibit the legitimate use of our expertise,” McClymer wrote in a letter to the board. “A physicist or engineer could not comment on fears of [radiofrequency] radiation, or a wildlife expert on bear trapping or hunting, or a political scientist commenting on anything. Pretty much anything of import ends up being political in a democracy or republic.”

The Maine story is not unfolding in a vacuum. Campus speech hasn’t been such a hot-button issue since  the late 1960s, when the nation was convulsing under the strain of political and social conflict and change triggered by the civil-rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Much of the current debate has centered on how universities handle the free-speech rights of those whose views students tend to find distasteful (Milo Yiannopoulos, to name but one example), but professors are increasingly coming under fire for their own attempts to speak out.

A University of Kansas professor nearly lost her job in 2015 after she used the word “nigger” during a discussion on race in a graduate seminar. Student complaints led to a four-month investigation that ultimately found that the teacher, who is white, hadn’t used the word as a slur.

At Yale University in 2016, a husband and wife resigned their positions as professors following a student outcry regarding an email one of the professors had sent. The email decried a university administration request that students avoid wearing Halloween costumes that might be considered culturally insensitive.

And just last year,  a community college in New Jersey fired an adjunct professor who’d appeared on Fox News to defend a blacks-only demonstration being staged by a Black Lives Matter chapter.

Click the link below to read Nick McCrea’s story in its entirety:

“Professors Question Maine University System’s Push to Limit Political Activity”

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About Jon E. Dougherty

Jon E. Dougherty has spent more than 25 years as a journalist, author, editor, reporter, and media consultant. Dougherty has a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in national security studies/intelligence analysis, and he's a U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom (2009-10).

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