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Political expression, work may not mix

By Nicole Brooks 331-4232 |
October 23, 2008

A political sign professing support for a candidate is acceptable in an Indiana University professor’s office, if the sign is facing toward the outside world, and most likely against federal law if placed in the lobby of an academic building.

Trucks Leaving for Yankee Stadium
Political signs are seen in office windows Tuesday at the Indiana University School of Law at the corner of Fourth Street and Indiana Avenue in Bloomington. Chris Howell | Herald-Times

How university faculty and staff can show their support for a political candidate or party is a gray area, said IU associate university counsel Michael Klein.

“There are just no simple answers,” he said. “I think signs in windows in which the signs go outward could clearly look like an endorsement of the university’s.”

And that is the key distinction, according to university administration — does a political poster or button or bumper sticker constitute support from an individual faculty or staff member, or from the university as an institution? As a 501(c)3 organization, the university is exempt from paying federal taxes and must abide by federal tax laws that ban engaging in political activity, Klein said.

IU facilities cannot be used to promote one particular candidate or political party, and the school as an institution cannot endorse a candidate, said IU spokesman Larry MacIntyre. Someone who saw political signs on campus questioned whether that guideline was being broken, and the issue went to Klein.

For a short time last week, faculty at the IU law school were led to believe political signs in windows of IU’s Lewis Building on Indiana Avenue, which the law school uses, may be in violation of federal law and that the signs should be taken down.

“To a bunch of lawyers used to the First Amendment, that suggestion didn’t sit very well,” law professor Alex Tanford said. Law school dean Lauren Robel discussed the suggestion with university counsel, Tanford said. “There was no issue as far as they knew. There’s been no attempt by the university to tell us what we can and cannot do.”

Tanford said concerns about the signs may have come from the “one-sidedness” of the display, as he’s been at the law school for 30 years and never encountered this issue.

“My guess is that never before in an election have the signs been so one-sided. All the signs are Obama signs.”

Klein agrees that one-sided signs could suggest a university as a whole is endorsing a candidate.

“At the same time, IU employees are perfectly free to do whatever they want, politically,” he said, but doing so on university letterhead, or using their university e-mail account is problematic. At what point does an employee’s actions appear to be actions of the university is the question, Klein said. “There really are no clear answers. Reasonable people can disagree.”

MacIntyre said the president’s office has received no complaints about political signs on campus.

Ivy Tech Community College-Bloomington Chancellor John Whikehart said the college also cannot support a candidate or party. While Ivy Tech is not a 501(c)3, it is a “public body of the state” according to its employee handbook, meaning the college name can’t be used in political persuasion.

Whikehart said he has no problem with political bumper stickers on faculty and staff vehicles, or posters in individual offices. He does view wearing a political button while working as influencing the “voting or political affiliation of coworkers or students,” which is unacceptable.

“I would certainly extend that to the wearing of buttons while working or teaching,” Whikehart said.

Ivy Tech encourages political activity in students, Whikehart said, and if he saw a student wearing a campaign button or T-shirt, “I would only be pleased to see that they’re involved in the political process.”

Monroe County employees, just like IU and Ivy Tech staff, may not use work time and equipment for campaign purposes. County employees may not use their positions to assist in campaigns, according to their personnel policy. Bloomington city employees have no written policy to follow when it comes to politicking, said director of employee services Daniel Grundmann. Any issues or complaints would be handled by him on a case-by-case basis, but he hasn’t had to, he said. Displays of support, from posters to buttons, would fall under a person’s First Amendment rights, he said.

“That would be something that might be a questionable thing to regulate.”