I notice that many senior-ranking, tenured full professors at American universities have the freedom to go deeply into politics on their social media pages such as Twitter and Facebook.

Can the president or chancellor of an American university also publicly vouch for Joe Biden or Donald Trump before November's election, or must they stay neutral, when using Twitter and / or official university communication channels, such as university email?

Where does the line get drawn for academic freedom / freedom of speech, for university presidents and chancellors?

  • 1
    It depends upon the University's policies. Public universities and private universities would have different policies and public schools would vary by state. Also, few universities would allow their leadership to use their office to promote a candidate. – Richard Erickson May 11 at 21:32
  • 2
    There are other dimensions to this than just rules around free speech. Inevitably, if a president publicly endorsed a candidate, they would attract significant media attention. This would probably be seen as detrimental to the university’s wider interests, and lead to an uncomfortable meeting with the university’s board. – avid May 11 at 21:46
  • 1
    Close voters: While it's true that the answer might partly depend on institutions individual policies, there are quite a few ways to answer the question which are general. – Anonymous Physicist May 12 at 4:23
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist I agree -- I think this question is interesting and could get some insightful general answers. Thanks for your answer below, btw. – user124011 May 12 at 4:48
  • Also, I would suggest you look specific school policies. For example, UW-Madison has different policies for faculty compared to "high visibility positions". news.wisc.edu/… – Richard Erickson May 12 at 13:37

In general, the U.S. constitution provides broad freedom of speech. This includes faculty, but there is no special academic freedom here - just the general freedom that all Americans (and many non-Americans) enjoy.

The political activities of many governmental employees are regulated by the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act is generally applicable (with exceptions) to many categories of federal employees, including people who receive only a small part of their pay from federal employment. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and others often employ faculty members in various capacities. In these situations, they would be bound by the Hatch Act.

What does the Hatch Act limit? It depends on the kind of position. This page summarizes what kinds of activities are prohibited.

None of this is directly applicable to the people who run American universities, because it is rare for those universities to be run by the federal government. I know of one (Haskell University is operated by the Department of the Interior to provide education for native americans). There are likely a few others, but not many.

Universities (like any other organization) have the ability to decide what kinds of political activity are appropriate for their official operations. They may choose to limit their employees in ways similar to the Hatch Act, impose their own rules, or do nothing at all. At least in my experience, most universities tend toward the latter end of that spectrum.

Outside of their official capacity, faculty (including administrators) may publicly support anyone they wish. However, there may be practical consequences for doing so (such as hurt relationships with donors or their board).

| improve this answer | |

American university presidents have the same legal freedom of speech as every other American. Law will not tell you the answer to this question.

The job of an American university president is primarily to raise money, often from donors. To be successful at raising money, they cannot publicly adopt a political position not supported by their donors.

If the university gets significant money from government (which is getting rarer) then the university president needs to avoid aggravating the current government and any future government.

Plenty of university presidents are highly political because they were politicians before they were university presidents.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Presidents of American public universities are typically state government employees, and as such, their official speech can be regulated. For example, faculty and staff at my university (including the president) are prohibited by state law, as state employees, from directly lobbying the state government. – JeffE May 12 at 20:35
  • @JeffE I didn't think the question was about official speech. Certainly many universities prohibit using university resources for political (and many other) purposes. – Anonymous Physicist May 13 at 0:06
  • But given the power dynamics at play, it's nearly impossible to tease apart official speech from personal speech. I am forbidden to campaign in the classroom, even if I announce that I am speaking privately, because I hold a position of power over the students. A university president actively campaigning for candidate X might make faculty who support candidate Y nervous about their salaries or promotions or job security, whether or not the president is campaigning from their university office. – JeffE May 13 at 15:51
  • (The prohibition on my speech in the classroom is a consequence of state law, not just university policy. Several years ago, the university lawyers tried to ban faculty from broader political activity, like attending political rallies or putting bumper stickers on their cars; that was quickly shot down, but it led to a clarification of the law.) – JeffE May 13 at 15:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.