University of Maine System officials are changing a proposed policy on who can lobby or speak on behalf of the system, after some professors raised concerns that the policy could restrict their free speech rights.

UMaine System officials said the policy wasn’t intended to muzzle professors speaking as experts in their field in legislative testimony, participating in political activity on or off campus, or teaching subjects that touch on political issues.

“This policy was never intended to restrict individual free speech rights or individual academic freedom,” system General Counsel James Thelen said Friday, presenting some of the new language at a meeting of the board of trustees’ Academic and Student Affairs Committee. “I hope this language makes that clear.”

Some faculty members raised concerns after the draft language for the so-called “Institutional Authority on Political Matters” policy was released in November. The proposal spelled out that all statewide legislative advocacy for the system must be coordinated through the Chancellor’s Office – specifically the Office of Community and Government Relations.

But the policy also, if adopted, would prohibit university employees from engaging in political activity during work time, defined as time spent on university property, time spent dealing with campus email or office equipment, and time on university-issued cellphones. It also would prohibit employees from using university class time or any institution-sponsored program to endorse or oppose any partisan political candidate.

That concerned some faculty members, who said it could be read as prohibiting faculty and staff from expressing their views and engaging in the political process.

New language released Friday expressly spells out that the policy doesn’t restrict employees from exercising free speech, and that faculty members can speak as experts in their fields without permission from the Chancellor’s Office.

It also says a provision forbidding partisan political activity “permits, for example, pedagogically sound education, faculty-led classroom discussion, critical thinking, research, and class assignments related to the political process and public policy choices, and their impacts on history and contemporary society.”

“We are trying our best to balance institutional needs and individual rights,” Thelen said.

Faculty representatives at the committee meeting said almost all their concerns were addressed with the new language, but asked Thelen to make additional changes before the trustees vote on the policy at their March meeting.

“I really like the language (about) faculty using their expertise,” said Lisa Leduc, a professor of criminal justice and a faculty representative to the board.

However, there are still questions about the prohibition of using university resources, she and others said: What about using a campus-issued computer on the weekend or at a conference? Or using that computer to send an email from a personal email account? Who determines what is considered “legitimate” and “pedagogically sound,” as described in the policy, asked assistant professor Uriah Anderson of the University of Maine at Machias. Another asked for clarification on what is meant by “staff time,” since faculty don’t have defined hours to their workday.

Thelen said he would consider those questions, and that additional revisions were likely since the proposal is still being reviewed by some campuses’ faculty senates before coming back to the committee. After the committee signs off on the final language, the proposal will go to the trustees for a vote at their March meeting.

Orono faculty representative Patti Miles, an associate professor of management, asked whether a climate change researcher could testify before the Legislature without having to get permission from the Chancellor’s Office.

“Absolutely,” Chancellor James Page said. “You just can’t say your position is the university’s position.”

“OK, I’m down with that,” Miles said.

The decision to create the policy in the first place is traced back to November 2016, when student representatives raised concerns with trustees about campus civility in the context of the contentious 2016 presidential election, as well as the political climate in Maine and elsewhere in the United States. They also cited concerns about unrest on college campuses across the country.

As a result of that meeting, the trustees formed a committee to examine two issues – free speech and political impartiality. The trustees tackled free speech first, and adopted the university’s newly expanded free speech and academic freedom policy in March 2017. Thelen said Friday that the policy on political matters was intended to be read in conjunction with the free speech and academic freedom policy.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:36 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2018, to correct the job title of Patti Miles.

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