October 15, 2008
By Pete Nickeas
Public Affairs Reporter
A five-year-old state ethics law designed to curb campaigning by state employees or with state resources applies to University of Illinois student-workers, according to Tom Hardy, executive director of university relations.
A Sept. 18 newsletter from the university's ethics office attempted to outline the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act. It said university employees and graduate students could not express support for candidates or parties through pins, buttons or bumper stickers, or attend political events, while on campus.
Students raised concerns over whether the law applies to all students, or just students employed by the university, and whether or not the policies outlined in the newsletter were accurate.
University administration has since backed away from the newsletter following protests by students and faculty citing First Amendment concerns.
“The newsletter is not a university policy statement,” Hardy said. “The purpose of the briefing was to familiarize us as state employees with the prohibited political activities section of the [State Employees and Officials] Ethics Act.”
University President Joseph White emailed the university community on Oct. 6 to clarify the situation, saying that employees can “attend partisan political rallies” and “wear partisan political buttons,” provided they are not on duty. He also said employees may display partisan bumper stickers on their vehicles.
Deputy Inspector General Gilbert R. Jimenez, whose office investigates ethics complaints against state employees, believes White’s interpretation of the ethics law, outlined in the email, was “traditional.”
“Except where he talks about bumper stickers,” Jimenez said, “which the ethics act doesn’t seem to talk about directly.”
Kathryn E. Eisenhart, a professor in UIS’ legal studies department, believes the law is clear: student employees are state workers if they work for the university. She does take issue with White’s contention that the ethics act governs apparel.
“I disagree with President White on his interpretation of wearing apparel or buttons while at work,” Eisenhart said. “In order to have a traditional position, it either has to be supported by case law or statute,” she said. “There is nothing in the statute, nothing in the [university’s] manual, no case law supporting that position.
“The ethics act doesn't mention anything at all about apparel. The language of the statute clearly does not identify any kind of expression. It only focuses on conduct,” she said, such as using state property, machines, or working on state time, to further a candidate’s campaign.
Eisenhart serves on the Campus Senate’s committee on freedom of expression, which will likely pass a resolution supporting the president’s position. She added that there will be “a recommendation that [White] go even farther and remove his restriction on expression in the work place as not being in keeping with a university environment,” she said.
The committee can only make recommendations, Eisenhart said.
The issue was also raised in the Sept. 28 Student Government Association and again at the Oct. 12 meeting by President Ashley Rook, who serves with Eisenhart on the senate committee. Rook said SGA will likely pass a version of the senate’s resolution at its Oct. 26 meeting.
It is not clear whether the university plans to enforce the law. Hardy would not say whether he would stand by an earlier statement to the Chicago Tribune that “the university only wanted to inform its employees of the law and had no intention of enforcing it,” only saying that employees should “use common sense and good judgment.”
Messages left in UIS’ ethics office, which is responsible for turning over any ethics complaints to the Office of the Executive Inspector General, were not returned as of Sunday evening.
Other notes from the SGA meeting:
The Oct. 12 Student Government Association meeting ran two hours and fifteen minutes. UIS administration pleaded their case for numerous fee increases to a largely unresponsive SGA. Trustee Craig McFarland and Treasurer Charles Olivier were particularly aggressive in their questioning. A full report of all the fee increases and justifications will be available in The Journal on Oct. 29.