On Monday, University president Mary Sue Coleman voiced her support for Proposal 2, an initiative to legalize the use of discarded fertility clinic embryos for stem cell research, which will appear on the November ballot.
An individual professor — or student, for that matter — is allowed to voice an opinion on any matter by the First Amendment. To imply the opinion on behalf of the University is forbidden. But for professors and administrators who represent the University on a daily basis — like Coleman — the line between personal and public is hazy.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said University employees are free to express their views any way they wish — as long as it doesn’t involve using University resources.
“Under Michigan law, we are not allowed to use University resources to support or oppose ballot proposals or candidates,” she said. “In addition, under federal law to maintain tax-exempt status, we are not allowed to support or oppose candidates and must limit our lobbying.”
Professors can wear campaign buttons to work but can’t use their University offices for campaigning. They can pass out flyers with an opinion on a ballot initiative or candidate, but can’t use a University copy machine to make the copies. Even using a University title — like in a letter to the editor — can be construed as a University resource, Cunningham said.
“We ask University employees to think carefully about their use of the University name,” she said.
The University is known to toe the line between objective education and outright endorsement on issues like stem cell research. Cunningham said the University would never endorse a ballot proposal but often hosts lectures and programs about the issue and what’s at stake.
Cunningham said Coleman was perfectly within her right to endorse Proposal 2 “as an individual.”
“She wasn’t using resources, she wasn’t even using her title — she was just using her name, and everyone should be allowed to do that no matter who they are,” she said.