As Election Day nears, a review of political expression guidelines

With congressional, state and county offices on the ballot in the Nov. 8 election, faculty and staff may find it helpful to review how constitutional protections, state law and university policies apply to political activity and expression on campus -- whether in their office or in a classroom.

Here are some tips, based on guidance from the office of general counsel and the senior vice president and provost's office:

Your personal rights

University employees, as private citizens, may participate fully in politics, which includes publicly expressing political opinions. They can support or oppose candidates and legislation, write letters to the editor or even run for office. 

Encouraging student participation

Catt Center director and professor of political science Karen Kedrowski penned some guidelines for faculty on encouraging eligible students to vote while staying nonpartisan.

However, faculty and staff should avoid creating the impression they are acting or speaking on behalf of the university. Unless explicitly authorized, ISU employees do not speak for Iowa State and should not imply their opinions represent those of the university.

Also, faculty and staff must use their own time and resources when engaging in political activity. Employees should not use a university computer, email account or letterhead for political communication, for instance. State law prohibits public entities and their employees from using government resources for political purposes, and Iowa State policy generally prohibits employees from using university property for a private purpose, such as supporting their personal political views.

Campaign signs and stickers

State law generally prohibits displaying campaign signs on or within university buildings, other than student residence halls. Displaying political messages in employee workspaces may be permitted if they're not conspicuously visible to the public or affixed to equipment owned by the university. The key idea is whether someone might reasonably interpret that the message is representing the institution.

For example, a political sign posted on an outward-facing window or door would be problematic, as would posting a political sticker on a university-owned laptop. Faculty and staff also should consider how displaying political messages may affect expression of diverse or contrary opinions in their offices or classrooms.

Classroom expression

As a public university, the First Amendment applies to Iowa State and generally limits the university's ability to restrict political expression beyond reasonable time, place and manner regulations. For instance, the university prohibits chalking messages in specific areas of campus. This prohibition in specific areas applies to all chalking regardless of the content or viewpoint expressed. These restrictions must be consistent and imposed regardless of the view expressed.

In classrooms, instructors can require that students act in a way that maintains an environment effective for learning. Policies and procedures and training resources can help faculty manage disruptive students. But in the same way that chalking rules can't consider what's written on the sidewalk, classroom expectations for students must be reasonable, content- and viewpoint-neutral, and applied consistently. Instructors can't bar students from expressing opinions on topics discussed in class, even if those opinions are offensive to others in the classroom. Fact-based teaching and conversation are a good strategy for countering objectionable views, and it's appropriate to prohibit discussions on matters unrelated to the course.

Providing balance

Considering whether to have a political advocate or politician speak to a class? Discussions of political topics need to be germane to the course, so candidate visits must have an educational purpose related to the class. Also, federal law requires equal access to the university for candidates or their surrogates. Therefore, instructors who allow one candidate to visit a classroom must allow them all. The same principle applies to advocates and opponents of ballot measures.

The university's lectures program has already extended invitations to candidates running for many state and federal offices, including the U.S. House and Senate, and the Iowa gubernatorial election. Visit their schedule for details.

Registering students

A voter registration drive may not seem partisan, but it depends on the sponsor. Some may look to maximize registrations from those who appear to be supportive of their cause, while avoiding others who may not feel the same way. For that reason, faculty are discouraged from using class time for voter registration drives. The Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women in politics offers a module in Canvas for encouraging students to register and vote. The Catt Center also has an FAQ on student voting.


Employees with specific questions regarding political activities on campus -- including what is permissible and prohibited -- may contact Iowa State general counsel Michael Norton at 294-5352 or