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Angry over ‘Sex Week,’ Legislators in Tennessee Attempt to Bar Outside Speakers from Campus

By February 21, 2014

Hey, state legislators in Tennessee: Quit trying to restrict the voices that students at your public universities are allowed to hear.

Last week saw the introduction of deeply misguided legislation penned by Tennessee state legislators that would cut off all funding for outside speakers at the state’s public universities. The language of the bill in question (Senate Bill 2493; PDF) was apparently prompted by the intense legislative distaste for the University of Tennessee – Knoxville’s (UT’s) second annual “Sex Week.” The bill is dramatically stark:

No institutional revenues from any source, including student activity fees, shall be used to engage and pay visiting or guest speakers for events at public institutions of higher education.

So much for commencement speakers, I guess!

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the legislators threatened funding cuts before last year’s Sex Week, too, prompting UT to rescind funding for the event. The programming was able to continue only because of private donations received after the funding cut.

Last week, I talked to Tyler Kingkade of Huffington Post College about why this year’s legislation is such a bad idea:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech watchdog group, told HuffPost in a statement the two “misguided” bills being pushed by Campfield would “impoverish the exchange of ideas precisely where it is supposed to be most robust.”

“That some students (or legislators) may be offended by some of the ideas brought to campus is a reason to engage in more dialogue, not shut it down entirely,” added Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. “Here at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, we often tell students that if they make it through four years of college without once being offended or having their ideas challenged, they should ask for their money back.”

Happily, I’m not alone in thinking this legislative incursion into the campus marketplace of ideas is deeply flawed. UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek reached the same conclusion:

“That’s the role of great universities—to allow the free exchange of ideas,” Cheek said. “If we don’t have different ideas, if we don’t have controversial ideas expressed, then we’re not really accomplishing the real mission of the university.”

And UT students agree, too. A petition opposing both this bill and companion legislation (PDF) that would alter the allocation of student activity fees based on membership size gathered nearly 1,900 signatures, rejecting

the 108th Tennessee General Assembly’s Senate Bill 1608, 2493 and any other legislative act that would reduce or interfere with the student body’s existing ability to self-allocate funds for student activities or that would otherwise interfere with the ability of all students and their student organizations to exercise their United States and Tennessee constitutional rights of free speech and free association.

As we always say here at FIRE, the way to respond to ideas with which one disagrees is with more speech, not censorship. It took them a while, but Tennessee legislators seem to have finally figured that out: Kingkade reports that legislators, seemingly shifting tactics, are now pursuing a resolution that wouldn’t interfere with the student fee process or bar outside speakers from campus, but would instead simply express outrage (PDF) at Sex Week programming. The resolution reads in part:

WHEREAS, the funding of “Sex Week” at UT-Knoxville is an outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies; and

WHEREAS, “Sex Week” fits nowhere within the mission of the University of Tennessee, nor should it ever; now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE ONE HUNDRED EIGHTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE, THE SENATE CONCURRING, that this Body hereby condemns the administration of the University of Tennessee and expresses its displeasure with the University for permitting “Sex Week” to be held on the UT-Knoxville campus for a second consecutive year.

The legislature has a right to express its displeasure. (Whether or not it should do so is another question.) But threatening to cut budgets, silence speakers, or interfere with the student fee allocation process in order to restrict the flow of ideas on campus is beyond the pale.

Schools: University of Tennessee – Knoxville