Should a teacher let students know her voting preferences?


Law professor Stanley Fish tackled the issues around teachers wearing campaign buttons in the classroom, at his blog with the New York Times.

Fish says teachers don’t have a free speech right to wear buttons supporting their favorite candidates.

My point is made for me by William Van Alstyne, past President of the AAUP and one of the world’s leading authorities on the first amendment. In a letter to current president Nelson, Van Alstyne corrects his view that faculty “have a first amendment right” to wear campaign buttons. “I have no doubt at all,” he declares, “that a university rule disallowing faculty members from exhibiting politically-partisan buttons in the classroom is not only not forbidden by the first amendment; rather, it is a perfectly well-justified policy that would easily be sustained against a faculty member who disregards the policy.”

Right! It’s no big deal. It’s a policy matter, not a moral or philosophical matter, and as long as the policy is reasonably related to the institution’s purposes, it raises no constitutional issues at all. On Oct. 10, the United Federation of Teachers filed suit to reverse the button ban, claiming that the free speech rights of teachers had been violated. If that’s their case, they’ll lose.

I think he’s right — check out his post, and tell us what you think.

4 Responses to Should a teacher let students know her voting preferences?

  1. Kate says:

    First of all, regarding Kate’s post, I’m not at all sure teachers can “demonstrate religious preference” in the classroom without penalty. I’m not at all sure a teacher in, say, in that parish in Louisiana [which nearly every year is hauled into court by the ACLU for discovering some new way to engage in Christian proselytizing the the classroom] who showed up wearing a burkha would not suddenly be discovered to be not performing well enough in the classroom to continue working there. There is some suspicion, and some evidence, that in some public schools in Utah, being visibly non-Momon can be hazardous to your employment.

    Do you mean to say that showing a religious preference to being OTHER than Christian (in LA) or Mormon (in Utah) carries a penalty? Isn’t that in a sense also showing a preference towards that area’s most popular faith?

    I don’t think being Muslim or Christian SHOULD make a teacher less employable, and that they should not be discriminated on the basis if their religion. If their religion requires them to wear certain items (whether a burkha a cross or even a kirpan, I’d say that those items cannot be the basis of disqualification from employment.

    I also think there’s a lot of difference between, for example, wearing an “Obama” button in the classroom and lecturing the students on why Obama is better than McCain.

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  2. ollie says:

    Here is how I see it: there is a difference between what is legal and what is ethical and the rules are different for public and private institutions.

    Here is what I think is ethical: when I teach, I have a captive audience. This captive audience is there to hear me talk about the subject matter (in my case, mathematics). So it would be unethical for me to expose them to my politics.

    True, I do wear my fleece jacket to my office which has a campaign logo on it and I hang it up in my office, but it is in a rather inconspicuous place and a student who comes in for office hours would have to look pretty hard to find the logo.

    Note: I have had professors tell me about their politics in class (brief sentence here or there) and in each case, it was a CONSERVATIVE doing the telling! :)

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  3. flatlander100 says:

    First of all, regarding Kate’s post, I’m not at all sure teachers can “demonstrate religious preference” in the classroom without penalty. I’m not at all sure a teacher in, say, in that parish in Louisiana [which nearly every year is hauled into court by the ACLU for discovering some new way to engage in Christian proselytizing the the classroom] who showed up wearing a burkha would not suddenly be discovered to be not performing well enough in the classroom to continue working there. There is some suspicion, and some evidence, that in some public schools in Utah, being visibly non-Momon can be hazardous to your employment.

    But from my own POV, political buttons… endorsements or revelations of preferences… from the lectern or front of the classroom are not, for me, acceptable in a public institution. As long as taxpayers are cutting my checks, no proselytizing and no politicking from the front of the room. If students ask me who I’m voting for, I tell them I’ll be happy to talk politics with them after class is over if they like. But not on the pubiic’s dime. No university rule exists where I teach [that I know of] banning buttons, etc. For me, none is necessary. Politicking from the lectern is wrong at a public institution. Over coffee at the Union, fine. From the lectern, no.

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  4. Kate says:

    You know I have mixed feelings about this one. I’d say it was a teacher’s right to wear a cross, or a star of David, or a burkha to class. If they can demonstrate religious preference, why not political? How do we eliminate (or do we want to eliminate) all bias from our classrooms?

    My gut reaction is that it would not be ok for a teacher to wear a political button… but I’d be very hard pressed to say why in light of other things teachers do and wear without generating conflict.

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