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I attend a public university in Kentucky (USA). My professor has assigned an advocacy assignment that requires students to write three letters of support for a certain House bill that will soon be voted on (H.R. 592 / S. 109).

  • The professor has given us all a template where we get to "customize" one paragraph with our own supporting statement. The letters must have our name electronically and physically signed. This bill would alter our profession and most of our college is in support of it, including the professors

  • The letters must be positive and supporting of the bill. The letters must be turned in to the professor for proofreading, then will be sent by the professor to our home county/area representatives.

  • The template letter repetitively thanks the representative for sponsoring the bill and provides background info as to why the representative should vote in favor of it.

I have emailed the professor, the dean of academic affairs and the dean of the college. The dean of academic affairs responded with basically "not her issue". (Although our student handbook specifically states she's next in line after a professor with any concern.) The dean of the college has not responded. And the professor announced to our class that the assignment is still due tomorrow at noon. Later, I requested to meet with him but his requested meeting time is not until after the assignment is due.

I actually have a neutral stance on this bill. My concern is that a professor is using his position and course to force students to take his personal stance on a bill that will have a major change in healthcare, specifically pharmacy practice. My main concern is that even if the professor doesn't send my letters, he will all of my classmates that may not have expressed their concern. (That's 140 students with 3 letters each = 420 letters sent)

Can a professor do this? Is this legal? Or a violation of students' First amendment?

I turned in my assignment with the preamble edit as recommended by some and met with the professor at his request. His response was that I would receive full credit for my assignment, he was unaware of this issue previously, the other course director and himself have not looked into this issue, he is retiring in March, and he has no regard to continue the discussion besides our conversation in his office. He then proceeded to tell me his personal life stories and asked questions about my history (i.e. where are you from? What do your parents do? What do you want to do in life? etc.) There is no resolution at this point and he does not seem concerned. He has not edited the assignment (as my initial request to him was to make the assignment not part of his final course grade due to the circumstances of the assignment) and all other students were still required to do the assignment (3 endorsed letters, addressed, and stamped, in support of the particular bill) and turn them in to class teaching assistants to review and mail. I have also researched university policies on such matters and he is in violation of University policy as well as violating students' academic freedoms. I notified him of this during the meeting and he had no response other than "well you've done your research, I have not."

This professor is in his mid-70s, very traditional, and is retiring in March (2 months) as I stated previously. I believe he doesn't want to deal with this issue and has no desire to take the time to resolve it. Do I contact him again? The assignment still stands and has not been altered. Students were forced to endorse political activity of a Professor or be reprimanded by a failing grade.

What do I do now?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – StrongBad Jan 29 '18 at 20:30
  • Even in the US there must be some kind of regulation of pharmacy, and some kind of body responsible for licensing pharmacists and the profession more generally? The University will fear the profession's governing body much more than an irate student, even one with a newspaper campaign. Drop that into your conversations with them. ... Let the university worry about getting a fail grade themselves: it focuses the mind. – Dannie Feb 2 '18 at 18:30
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    Sounds like a job for the ACLU? – Kaithar Feb 3 '18 at 0:17
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    “I believe he doesn't want to deal with this issue and has no desire to take the time to resolve it.“ this answers that “Do I contact him again?“ - now your either let it be or take it to someone who does care. – DonQuiKong Feb 3 '18 at 12:30
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    Contact www.thefire.org and let them know this is happening. They are a foundation that deals with student rights in education, including freedom of conscience. They are staffed with lawyers that have an intimate knowledge of this field of law, and they take on many cases for free. Regardless of whther this individual professor is retiring, the university itself should be held to account for the actions of its staff. – Ben Feb 4 '18 at 8:57
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While it is certainly ethically and morally questionable - do consider how much you are willing to take this battle as a representative of justice or students or whatever.

You can avoid conflicting your own principles, if you write a heading/preamble,

Please note, this is an assignment essay (prof Y, course X, University Z) and does NOT reflect my personal standpoint regarding the legislation (H.R. 592 / S. 109). This is the assignment of X.Y, the essay will be signed as "Donald Duck" to avoid any issues. (your signature here)

And then write a flaming support for the legislation. Sign with Donald Duck. Sign your own name in the preamble.

The professor has already made a serious error. He is liable to take a lot of flak - if the right story comes along. If this recieves a failing grade, or anything less than an A+, then go public - and say you recieved unfair grading due to having a political view that differs from the professor. This is a story that is easily sold, and will ride the wave of offendedness that seems to be on the rise these days.

He really cannot grade you punitively, or something that can be percieved as punitively - he must give you a better grade than what you deserve.

Update: You ask for advice what to do next. It seems it was a mistake on your professors part. Assume no malice. Let it be.

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    Perhaps "does NOT reflect ..." could be "does not necessarily reflect ..." -- you seem to have inferred that OP opposed the legislation but that doesn't seem to be the case and is in any event not the issue. – John Coleman Jan 29 '18 at 16:31
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    This method of signing will get you failed anyway for not following the assignment. Now you have a train-wreck you're not proud of AND a failing score. I wouldn't go this route. – Mast Jan 29 '18 at 16:52
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    @DanRomik I'd flat out reject the assignment, but that's hardly solid advice. I don't see much wrong with the answer you provided either. – Mast Jan 29 '18 at 18:46
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    @Mast signing it as a legal document would mean you legally agree to the opinion. One cannot legally or ethically require you to do that. If the professor is that unreasonable to see the reasoning behind the student doing that for their own moral confidence then the professor is either needlessly being pedantic or purposely trying to solicit fake support letters. – The Great Duck Jan 30 '18 at 5:33
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    I feel it is important to note, and have not seen anybody else suggest this: When possible, communicate only in writing, or email, and document everything. Make a special folder to keep track of communications so they won't get lost. This is crucial if you want to prevent or negate any adverse repercussions. Your deans are not doing their jobs, and I strongly suggest you look into who to speak to above them. "Not my issue" is blatant disregard, and not an appropriate stance. You want a paper trail. Your professor is also telling you it's too late, he has done his damage, and does not care. – NOP Jan 30 '18 at 18:39
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Can a professor do this? Is this legal? Or a violation of students' First amendment?

You are 100% correct to be concerned. No, the professor most certainly cannot do such a thing; his behavior is deeply unethical and a blatant abuse of his authority. I am not a lawyer and can't comment about legality, but for a professor to coerce students to express political opinions they may not hold would certainly violate longstanding traditions of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Honestly, while the behavior may well be illegal, it is in any case bad enough that in my opinion you have more than enough ammunition to fight it even without resorting to legal arguments, so I don't think legality even necessarily matters that much.

As for how to respond, I think the emails you sent to the deans are a good start. Basically you need to alert some sensible people at your school (I am sure there are some) to what's going on and get their help with stopping the professor from sending out the fraudulent letters -- these could be student union representatives, the department chair, an ombudsperson, or all of the above. You can even consider contacting some local journalists and/or state legislators, although I would advise keeping things within the campus for starters.

In the meantime, while you are waiting for help to arrive, I would advise you to do the letter-writing assignment as you were asked and submit it by the deadline, but following the guidelines in my answer to this question regarding how to prevent the opinions you are being forced to express from being attributed to you against your will - that is, do not sign the letter, and preface it with a disclaimer in big bold letters and a verbatim quote of the assignment. The point of this is that the professor can reasonably ask you to write a letter where you advocate beliefs you may disagree with if he sincerely believes that that promotes the learning objectives of the course he is teaching, so it would be prudent of you to complete that part of the assignment in order to not get a failing grade and maintain the high moral ground in any battles that lie ahead; however, I do not believe that he has the authority to force you to pretend to endorse the letter's content. It would also be a good idea to seek legal advice, for example on law.se and/or by talking to an actual lawyer. Good luck!

————

Edit, added a bit later: It’s fascinating to me that this is taking place in the context of a course called Leadership in Pharmacy. It seems to me that by fighting this injustice you are showing a much greater understanding of what leadership is (and will likely learn much more valuable lessons about leadership) than either the professor or those among your fellow classmates who will follow the professor’s instructions without questioning them. Please allow me to congratulate you on your good sense and initiative. In my book you have already earned an A+.

————-

Also, as others have said in the comments, do come back and add an update to your question later to report on how the situation resolved itself. Further edit, added in response to OP’s update of the question: Since it looks like you won’t be getting the cooperation of the professor, I suggest continuing to send emails to draw attention to the situation. The key is to recruit allies who will be in a position to get the professor to see how unacceptable his behavior is. Some specific ideas I can think of are:

  1. Write an email to the department chair, dean and the university general counsel in which you describe the behavior, explain why you believe it violates university policy (and why it’s illegal if you think you can substantiate such a claim). Describe your conversation with the professor and its unsatisfactory outcome, and ask for their intervention. Consider adding a threat, either explicit or veiled, that you will contact the media if no action is taken.

  2. Alternatively and/or at the same time, try to find some classmates who are upset about what’s happening. If a good number of students band together and begin to voice loud dissatisfaction in emails to the department and university administration and/or social media, the university will be compelled to act. That will also reduce the risk that you will be singled out for retaliation.

  3. Use social media. A single tweet or short blog post may be all it takes to attract some serious public and media attention to the story.

  4. Get a lawyer. Official-looking letters bearing a signature ending with “Esq.” are a hell of a lot more scary to university officials than an email from an undergraduate and will command immediate respect.

As before, I think it’s advisable to try resolving the situation quietly without attracting attention from outside the campus if possible, since that carries the least risk to you of retaliation or somehow being dragged into a serious public scandal that you have no wish to be a part of. However, it seems that you are fast approaching a point where you have exhausted your options within the campus and it may well be beneficial to seek more public attention, so going public should be an option to consider seriously, while keeping in mind that that means a higher level of commitment and risk of disruption to your life.

One final piece of advice: in all your communications with university officials and/or the media, keep your tone neutral and factual. Describe facts (“this is a violation of university policy XYZ”), not opinions (“this is an outrage”, “I am deeply offended”, “the professor is behaving unethically”, etc), and let people draw their own conclusions. The facts are (very, very) strongly on your side here, and are your greatest weapon.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – StrongBad Feb 1 '18 at 16:47
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    "It seems to me that by fighting this injustice you are showing a much greater understanding of what leadership is (and will likely learn much more valuable lessons about leadership) than either the professor or those among your fellow classmates who will follow the professor’s instructions without questioning them" I wonder whether this assignment is a double-bluff and the professor is actually hoping for such a response :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 1 '18 at 18:21
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit If that's the case it's not a very good one because it will only work for people who don't agree with the bill (or wish to remain neutral to it). Even if there were a perfect context* in which all students would disagree with what they're being asked to write about, it could still possibly be against the rules/legislation. (* I expect you'd find at least one student out of some arbitrarily high number who secretly thinks (for example) "slavery is a good thing" or "hitler was a nice person" .) – Pharap Feb 2 '18 at 14:31
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    @Pharap Not really. Were I in that situation, I like to think I'd take issue with it whether or not I happened to agree with the position I was being made to support. – Max Barraclough Feb 5 '18 at 12:28
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The professor has given us all a template where we get to "customize" one paragraph with our own supporting statement.

If your original contribution is only a small portion of the letter, that seriously compromises the argument that this is of academic value.

The letters must have our name electronically and physically signed.

This has no academic value.

On the legal side:

Amend KRS 158.183 to permit students to voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/17RS/SB17.htm

You can also make an argument that a reasonable person would expect a university to give grades based on academic merit, not political activism, and this is thus a breach of contract. You could look through your university's handbook and other documents to see whether there's anything that touches on this.

Furthermore, this could be viewed as bribery, extortion, and/or embezzlement: your professor is soliciting personal/non-academic services in exchange for grades (bribery), threatening you if you don't comply (extortion), and using employer resources to advance personal interests (embezzlement).

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I don't know about the legality. If you don't get an answer on that here, you could delete your question and ask it at Law.SE.

I do have a practical suggestion regarding the academic aspect of your dilemma, though.

I read that "The Pharmacy and Medically Underserved Areas Enhancement Act (H.R. 592/ S. 109) is bipartisan legislation that will amend section 1861 (s) (2) of the Social Security Act to include pharmacists on the list of recognized healthcare providers." And that this is analogous to the transition nurse-practitioners underwent at some point to be able to treat and prescribe, similar to what doctors do. Apparently this bill is a bipartisan effort.

I'm confused -- are you against this bill? Or are you just bothered by the instructor requiring that students take a certain stance?

But either way, I think the solution to your dilemma, in the immediate term, is to write a short, persuasive essay explaining your position, and hand it in without the envelope.

You can certainly continue working your way up the ladder expressing your concern about the nature of the assignment (regardless of the legality, you can in either case express a concern). But I don't see how you can be certain of getting your point of view heard by the higher-ups before the due date.


Edit: Thanks to the reference to FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) provided in a comment by @rath, I found a similar case from Citrus College for you. An excerpt from FIRE's description of the case:

A Citrus College professor had compelled undergraduate students to write anti-war letters to President George W. Bush, penalizing the grades of students who dissented or refused to send the letters. After FIRE intervened, the Citrus College administration repudiated this outrage and resolved all issues in favor of freedom of conscience.

FIRE has resources that could be helpful for you, including an outline of the "fundamental right of freedom of conscience and the threats to this right on college campuses." An excerpt from the intro:

Freedom of conscience is the right to arrive at one’s private beliefs without coercion from those in power. Differences of opinion are the natural byproducts of a vibrant, free society. Unfortunately, at some of our nation’s colleges and universities, students are expected to share a single viewpoint on hotly debated—and often highly personal—issues. The two primary ways freedom of conscience is threatened on college campuses are through viewpoint discrimination and thought reform.

Thought Reform: Listening to different opinions and being exposed to unique perspectives, especially those with which you don’t agree, is a fundamental aspect of the college experience. Colleges and universities overstep their role as educational institutions when they demand adherence to certain values and subject students to disciplinary charges or mandatory counseling for failing to demonstrate a commitment to those values.

It can be helpful to look up your institution's mission and policy documents, including the code of conduct, and quote from them, because when administrators reading your letter recognize their own rhetoric, it will be easier for them to read with a mindset that's favorable to the letter writer.

On the other hand, if you can't find a clear institutional commitment to freedom of conscience on campus, that's a problem, worth pointing out.

Hopefully your instructor will realize that he didn't think things through enough, and will take the opportunity to open up a class discussion of this issue.

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    I actually have a neutral stance for this bill. My concern is that a professor is using his position and course to force students to take his personal stance on a bill that will have a major change in healthcare, specifically pharmacy practice. Thanks for your advice! – kbc Jan 29 '18 at 5:00
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    The issue is not the bill. The issue is one of coerced speech. I support legislation X; if you make it illegal for me to support any other legislation contrary to X, we'll have a problem. This is what is being discussed here. Engaging in debate about the merits of the bill takes attention away from the actual problem. – rath Jan 29 '18 at 9:07
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    what the bill is doesn't matter. The assignment is a disgrace if as described here. – BeauGeste Jan 29 '18 at 11:55
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    I think this merits a much stronger response than handing in an essay that advocates OP's position rather than that of the professor. This is a quite scandalous abuse of power, for which the professor should be at least reprimanded, or even sacked if it's a repeat offence. So the first thing should be to file a complaint with whomever is the prof's superior (probably the dean) and to make the issue public. – henning Jan 29 '18 at 14:25
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    @Timbo - Let me clarify. If OP's grade suffers due to not submitting the homework according to the political specs, that's discrimination -- illegal in the US since OP is at a public university. – aparente001 Jan 30 '18 at 4:43
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Somebody else mentioned "you can even consider contacting some local journalists and/or state legislators, although I would advise keeping things within the campus for starters."

I'd highly recommend raising as much public fuss as you can - call the local news stations and so on. Oftentimes things kept within the campus never leave the campus, and never get fixed.

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    Why escalate to this degree so early in the activism process? – aparente001 Jan 29 '18 at 21:03
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    Because nothing is going to happen without escalation. – R.. Jan 30 '18 at 5:07
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    While this what I would do, it is certainly possible the professor would retaliate by finding (inventing) some other plausible reasons for a bad grade. – WGroleau Jan 30 '18 at 7:55
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    It is possible that the professor could retaliate, but in the grand scheme of things, one bad grade shouldn't keep you from getting a degree. If I were in that situation, I would be perfectly OK with retaking that class with a different professor. Regarding escalation: Universities as a whole do not have a great track record for doing the right thing, take a look at recent cover-ups for abuse by professors, fraternities, and so on. As far as I'm concerned, academia can't be trusted with conducting internal investigations. – John R Jan 30 '18 at 22:39
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    It doesn't matter if the bill is bad or not. What matters is that the professor is using a position of power to force students to adopt his political position. – Tony Ennis Feb 1 '18 at 11:38
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Cherrypicking statements from the scenario to make sure I've got it right:

My professor has assigned an advocacy assignment that requires students to write three letters of support for a certain House bill that will soon be voted on (H.R. 592 / S. 109).

The letters must have our name electronically and physically signed.

The letters must be positive and supporting of the bill. The letters must be turned in to the professor for proofreading, then will be sent by the professor to our home county/area representatives.

It repetitively thanks the representative for sponsoring the bill and provides background info as to why the representative should vote in favor of it.

Now your question:

Is this legal?

Uhm, no?

How is this anything other than coercion? This is absurd.

I'm very sorry to hear that your Dean doesn't want to know, and unfortunately do not have any useful suggestions for you. But there is no way in my mind that this assignment can be anything other than laughably invalid.

  • do you have evidence it is not "legal" in Kentucky? – PatrickT Feb 2 '18 at 18:42
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    @PatrickT: IANAL but some things in life really are just blatantly self-evident everywhere Patrick. – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 5 '18 at 22:19
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I'd hand it in, but make it very clear on the assignment, and under separate email cover, that you certainly do not authorize any release of your document outside the school, and that you're uncomfortable with the premise of the assignment. Cc the Dean of students.

By way of justification, the assignment itself, asking you to write a letter of support for pending legislation, is quite reasonable, and has nothing to do with your personal level of support of the bill. Sending it to your Representative does not seem reasonable, wise, consistant with educational goals. The prof cannot and should not force you to petition your government. He or she can make you write an assignment.

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    I Cc'd the dean of students and academic affairs originally and received no response from the dean of students and the response from dean of academic affairs was basically "I'm too busy, this isn't my problem". – kbc Jan 30 '18 at 2:09
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    Makes no difference. This will just about guarantee that nothing happens in your name. If you want to elevate, cc the provost, and include the non response from the Dean of students. This profs assignment is problematic, and its hard to believe that the provost wouldn't want to deescalate. – Scott Seidman Jan 30 '18 at 2:32
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    How do you include a non response? – cfr Jan 31 '18 at 1:46
  • Among other things, the student can most likely invoke copyright in preventing dissemination of the essay. The professor and university can rely on Fair Use exemptions from copyright for many of their activities, but sending the letter to a politician's office would not fall under Fair Use. – Ben Voigt Jan 31 '18 at 6:44
  • @cfr -- you send the original email in the new email, along with the cc list showing who saw the message. If the provost sees the actions of the prof as problematic, and new the dean had a chance to intervene and didn't, I'm sure the provost would mention it to the dean. – Scott Seidman Jan 31 '18 at 18:49
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While I am not a lawyer, this sounds like you are being asked to make a public statement under duress. If you write a separate letter (under your real name), notarize it, and send it to your representative, he may have no choice but to take your complaint seriously. That is, of course, if your representative does not support this bill.

If he does support it, find a representative who opposes it and send your letter to them.

If you want to make sure it does not get lost in the noise, you can also call their office and explain that you are forced to write the letter and stress that it will be edited after you sign it. Mention that you will not have a chance to withdraw the letter after the edits. If this is illegal, the representative who opposes the bill should jump at the chance to expose any support for the bill that is being drummed up illegally. That is the benefit of a multi-party system. The opposing interests keep each other honest.

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While potentially less serious, this strikes me as very similar to the Lindsay Shepard case (potentially with the partisan roles reversed, but I have not read the details of the bill).

Do what she did - go public if it goes bad - if they fail you. I do not know the laws in your locale; but if they summon you to a meeting (and it is legal to do so) record the conversation.

Compelled speech is not, and should not, be acceptable anywhere, especially not at a University, so fight this. University should provide a space conducive to forming and sharing your own opinions, not being forced into a viewpoint.

protected by StrongBad Jan 29 '18 at 20:30

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