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Maine Professors Oppose Policy on Political Activity

January 11, 2018
 
 

University System of Maine professors are concerned about a Board of Trustees proposal to prohibit most employees from speaking about controversial political issues, according to the Bangor Daily News. The proposed “Institutional Authority on Political Matters” policy says that all legislative advocacy must be coordinated through the chancellor’s office, and only by certain high-level employees. Employees below the level of the president may express their personal views on legislative or political matters under the policy, but must indicate that they do not speak for their institutions. Employees may not engage in political activity during work time, “in or on” system property.

The university has argued that such a policy could help protect its nonprofit status, while faculty members say it could be used to limit their speech. 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, the newspaper reported. But Thelen said that federal tax guidance is clear that engagement in partisan politics risks the loss of federal funding or tax-exempt status.

Jim McClymer, president of the university faculty union, said members are worried less about expressing their views in classrooms than about whether the new restrictions could stop them from speaking out on policy issues impacting their students and the state. Some have asked whether the policy would apply to participating in on-campus political rallies, as well. “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.” A vote on the matter is now expected in March.

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