Stanley Fish has an interesting op-ed in this morning's New York Times about whether a school or university can prohibit its teachers from wearing a button advocating a particular candidate in the classroom. Fish argues that such a rule would be upheld under the First Amendment, and he suggests that such a ban would be appropriate given that a teacher's views can have a coercive effect on students- shaping, for instance, how they answer an exam question.
I don't think I would be enthusiastic about a formal ban on buttons at the college or graduate school level (in elementary or high school, on the other hand, I would be inclined to ban them from classrooms). But I also don't think professors should wear them, for precisely the kinds of reasons that Fish suggests.
But this raises an interesting question. Given that ninety percent or more of the buttons would be Obama buttons, given the well-documented political tendencies of teachers and professors, does it really matter whether they announce this with a button?
Surely students already know that nearly all of their teachers support Obama and (to a lesser extent, perhaps) other Democratic candidates. Does it still make a difference? I think it does. A teacher or professor who holds strong political (or religious or philosophical) views can and should make a strong effort not to let these views influence how she grades her students. If she wears her views on a button in class, it seems to me to raise legitimate questions as to how hard she will try to separate her personal views from her grading.