The University of Maine System trustees unanimously approved a policy Monday on political speech and impartiality, despite objections from students and faculty members who wanted more time to discuss a decision that some fear could restrict their free speech rights.

The policy makes clear that the publicly funded system, to maintain its tax-exempt status, should remain impartial to partisan political activity.

System officials have repeatedly said the policy is aimed at people speaking on behalf of the university and isn’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.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Abby Roche, a UMaine Ph.D. student and the graduate student representative to the board, which met Monday on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine.

Student and faculty representatives had asked the board to delay the vote until the trustees’ May meeting, giving the representatives time to go over new language in the policy. The latest version was released last Thursday during a school break, they noted.

The latest version was “substantially” revised in the most recent draft, reflecting conversations with faculty and students in recent weeks, according to the system’s general counsel, Jim Thelen.

In general, it was simplified. Previous drafts attempted to spell out what would not be allowed, such as prohibiting employees from using university class time or any institution-sponsored program to endorse or oppose any partisan political candidate.

The final draft strips much of that language and adds language that says anyone who wishes to engage in partisan political activity should do it on his or her own time and without the resources or funds of the university.

“UMS and its constituent universities fully embrace the First Amendment rights of all citizens, including all students and employees, to hold and express political, social or religious views of any kind,” the policy states. “When exercising their rights to participate in the political process as individuals or as otherwise permitted by this policy, system/university employees should emphasize that their comments or actions are their own, and not those of the system or university unless they have been specifically authorized to speak or act on behalf of a system institution.”

“Our thinking evolved over four months,” Thelen said. When meeting with faculty and students, he said, he “heard over and over again that you can’t be that specific without unintentionally going too far.”

“We simply were trying too hard to figure out what was or was not appropriate,” he said.

Several faculty members told the board in the public comment period that they thought there was still unclear language in the policy that could be interpreted in a way to muzzle faculty.

Among the faculty concerns raised Monday was clarity about a reference to faculty “responsibly” disseminating their research. Other concerns raised in an unsigned letter from “concerned staff and faculty” of the University of Maine at Augusta were that the policy could prohibit faculty from being advisers to political clubs, end budget support for those clubs or lead to the end of campus-hosted candidate forums or debates.

“We have significant concerns,” read the letter, presented to the trustees by James Cook, an associate professor of sociology at UMaine-Augusta.

“I think we can all agree that the stated intention – to clarify who is allowed to speak on political matters on behalf of the university, while still affirming their rights to express themselves – that’s entirely reasonable. The issue is: Does the written policy capture that intention?” said assistant professor Uriah Anderson of the University of Maine at Machias.

In a discussion before the vote, several trustees said they wanted Thelen to report back to the board immediately if any issues arose under the new policy, with a more formal review in a year.

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

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Twitter: noelinmaine

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