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Monday, October 06, 2008

Professors showing their political stripes

This presidential election has had much discussion about the voting preferences of academics, particularly law professors--from the legal advisory teams (consisting of many law professors) that every major-party candidate established during the primaries to the joke (made in this forum) about "Law Professors for McCain" holding their meeting in a booth in a diner somewhere between Chicago and South Bend to news and academic studies about where law professors and law faculties donate money.

I want to ask a more pedestrian question that arose with some colleagues: How appropriate is it for professors to include political signs or messages around their offices, particularly in the doorway? Is it OK to have a candidate poster on your door or on the walls of your office? How about in the window facing out onto campus, visible to all who walk by? Is there something about that space that ought to be "welcoming" to students of all stripes and views, such that a prominent visual display of one's political and partisan views is inappropriate? Is the office different than a classroom, where (I am guessing) most would believe it is inappropriate to display political preferences in that way? Or is this all simply a "grow-up-and-deal-with-it" issue for the students, something they should become accustomed to as they enter the legal world?

Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions, where I am guesting this month.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 6, 2008 at 02:35 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Appropriate or not, it is arguably illegal at my state school. And isn't there a sheriff in Florida who is under a Hatch Act investigation for endorsing Ms. Palin at a rally while in uniform?? I know the professoriat doen't like to think of ourselves as "mere" employees and I know there is that pesky First Amendment, but still....

Posted by: Dan | Oct 9, 2008 12:42:56 PM

I don't think you should put political messages in the doorway. It's OK to put them on the door itself, but making people walk through a political message in order to get into your office seems a bit much.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 6, 2008 9:58:31 PM

As a student, I would not have a problem with political signs in a professor's office. As long as the sign isn't disparaging a particular candidate or viewpoint (i.e. a 'You are dumb if you vote for Palin' sign, etc.), which I assume most profs wouldn't have anyway, I don't see a problem if a professor wants to show his/her political opinion in his/her own office.
As far as stating relevant political positions in class, I always appreciate when professors do so. I think it is foolish to pretend that one has no opinion at all on controversial issues, and it is very difficult to truly be objective when addressing such issues. Disclosing one's personal opinions allows students to evaluate the discussion with the knowledge the professor may (consciously or unconsciously) be favoring one position.
The tricky part of such disclosure is making sure that it is done in a non-threatening way; i.e., that students still feel as though open discourse and disagreement is welcomed and encouraged. As a conservative sociology major during my undergrad study, I often found myself disagreeing with the positions of my professors. I felt that the truly good professors were the ones who could acknowledge that their personal views were different from mine, but still welcomed my contributions to a class discussion, and were willing to engage me without being overbearing.

Posted by: D | Oct 6, 2008 7:30:34 PM

Doesn't it depend on the school? Different schools have different cultures.

In general, though, I would not put such signs on the outside of the office, like on the office door: People who disagree with you will sometimes find it unwelcoming. One possible exception: races beyond the Presidential race. If you have a favorite candidate for dogcatcher, for example, I doubt anyone would object.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 6, 2008 6:58:16 PM

Somewhat orthogonally (hee hee, I love that word), I've always wondered about the idea that professors should check their politics at the door. I understand the purpose of it, but I wonder if it is even possible--and whether it is self-defeating.

I obviously do not think that professors should pontificate on politics; and students should never feel coerced. But if one is discussing a politically-charged topic (same-sex marriage; affirmative action; abortion; and all manner of other topics), I wonder if it is better to state at the outset (or at some point) where you stand. Otherwise, students on all sides might be left guessing--and wondering whether it is safe to make a point. It feels like hiding the ball.

There has to be a way to say or indicate what your views are while still creating an open atmosphere in which students will be taken seriously and not punished for their political views.

I'm curious about others' thoughts on this; and I wonder if my students would say that I've tipped my hand in class.

I don't really have much to say about the office. I reserve my walls for diplomas, family photographs, the kids' drawings, and a sign that says "Some days you're the dog, Some days you're the hydrant." My inclination is that I would sooner state or indicate my (relevant) political positions in class than I would on the walls of my office. If students are coming to my office, it is either because they have a technical class-related question, or because they are seeking help (either with class, professional, or personal issues). If they are seeking help, the best that I can do is try to put them at ease and develop the trust that they deserve and expect. I don't think that political signs are a major impediment, but they might throw some students off their stride a bit.

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Oct 6, 2008 5:40:42 PM

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