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 PrawfsBlawg

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7 Responses

  1. One of my first days at law school, my Torts professor walks in wearing a Clinton-Gore button. As a Conservative Republican at Maryland, I was among the smallest of minorities but for some reason it just never occurred to me to be offended or “unwelcomed” by this. I did however make sure my G. H.W. Bush button was always prominently displayed thereafter….just part of my ongoing contribution to diversity at the school.

    (Of course the U. Maryland Law School, through its mandated Legal Clinic program, would later offer the opportunity to be trained in the art of finding offense whenever it can be beneficial to do so.)

  2. I teach math, not law, but I make no secret of my politics. I don’t bring it into the classroom, of course, but I have just as much right to have my own opinion and speak it as the students do of theirs.

  3. palooza says:

    no one’s disputing that you have the right. the question is whether it’s appropriate. I think it’s completely inappopriate. I’m a liberal Democrat and a I teach at a school where many students are probably more liberal than I am. But I have no doubt that some of my students are more conservative than I am, and I don’t see what’s achieved by ensuring (because it’s my right, after all) that my students know what party I support.

  4. joe says:

    I would argue that political orientation isn’t something that should be kept hidden even in class. Everyone has biases, and it’s probably best to get that out in the open. This will make you more trustworthy to students, and can (should?) be used to make the larger point that no one voice can be trusted as “objective” (including, e.g., the case book). It’s a disservice to lead students to believe their professor views doctrine and interpretation precisely the same way regardless of whether that professor is Jack Balkin or Sandy Levinson or Eugene Volokh or Ilya Somin.

  5. Lori Ringhand says:

    I teach Election Law and Constitutional Law – two areas where the law/politics divide collapses with great regularity. After spending a lot of time thinking about this issue, I now make a point of not noting my partisan preferences in the classroom. This isn’t because I think that I don’t have biases in how I present the material. Being human, I am sure I do. Nor is it an effort to hide that fact from my students – I suspect most of them guess my preferences, and I freely discuss them with those who think it important enough to ask me. My point, rather, is this: I want my class room to be a place where students learn to think critically, not where they learn to further hone their advocacy skills. There are lots of situations in their law school careers where they learn how to be zealous advocates. That is fine, and obviously is an important part of a law school education. But that is not what I want them to be doing in my classroom. In my classroom, I want to encourage my students to value the ability to think through ideas with a more open mind. By not flagging my own political preferences, I hope to create an environment where they focus on developing that skill, rather than one in which they view the classroom dynamic as one in which each of us “represent” and vigorously defend one side of a partisan debate or the other.

  6. Professors should take care not to force their politics upon students in ways that interfere with learning or create bias, but I think signs and buttons by themselves should be fine. In fact, if a mere political sign is enough to scare students away from a professor’s office, then likely he or she is not doing enough overall to invite and welcome them.

  7. Speed Dating says:

    It’s definitely a grow-up-and-deal-with-it type of situation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with law professors having campaign stuff in their offices. After all, the fact that they are law professors make them qualified to have an opinion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the younger minds of the new law students will be influenced. Professors should also be ethical about how they express their opinions and respect their student’s choice in our leaders.