When Can Faculty Show Porn?

April 23, 2012

Drawing attention to a blurry line between scholarship and obscenity (and questions about scholarship about obscenity), two professors have been criticized in recent weeks for showing videos that some considered pornographic.

Most agree that sexually explicit materials, including videos, can be academically relevant in sociology, gender studies and human sexuality courses, among others. But questions arise when instructors show those videos without first alerting those students and when students complain to administrators about the content.

Jammie Price, a tenured professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, was suspended last month after showing a documentary about pornography in her introductory sociology class. She’s fighting the charges, saying the university is attempting to punish her for exercising her right to free speech in the classroom.

Price was accused of engaging in "inappropriate speech and conduct in the classroom" after four students and some of their parents complained to administrators last month. Among the charges were that she screened "The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships" without properly warning students about the anti-porn documentary’s explicit content.

Price said the film, which she checked out from the university library, was graphic at times but academically relevant to that week’s topic of gender and sexuality. A Wheelock College professor who helped make the movie said it was "ludicrous" to discipline an instructor for showing the documentary, noting that interviews with gender studies scholars figure prominently in the film, which is critical of the porn industry but also includes brief explicit scenes of porn.

Price’s case lends itself to a wider discussion of how professors present relevant but potentially objectionable course materials — and how colleges respond when students complain.

Earlier this month at California State University at Fresno, a professor showed a film on advanced sexual techniques to her introduction to human sexuality class, The Fresno Bee reported. Administrators defended Professor Peggy Gish after students and conservative bloggers complained that she was showing pornography. An administrator told The Bee that Gish informs her students each semester they may leave the classroom if they feel uncomfortable. Gish didn’t respond to an Inside Higher Ed message seeking comment.

John DeLamater, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor of sociology and past editor of The Journal of Sex Research, said he’s aired "The Price of Pleasure" in his own classes and believes it has academic value. But he said professors have a duty to inform students ahead of time when a movie is graphic and to allow those students to leave without any repercussions. Price did not warn students about the film’s contents, but told Inside Higher Ed they could have excused themselves after it started without any negative consequences.

DeLamater gives presentations on best practices for college sex educators. Among his tips are to consult with university attorneys before teaching a course on sexuality and to make sure students don’t bring guests into the classroom. If students bring friends, he said that could constitute a public viewing and expose professors to punishment under local obscenity laws.

The university’s punishment of Price resulted from issues beyond the film. Among the seven charges outlined in the March 16 disciplinary letter obtained by Inside Higher Ed were that Price "made disparaging, inaccurate remarks about student athletes," strayed from her syllabus, forced her political views on students, said she didn’t like working at the university and criticized the college for having an old white coal miner as its mascot. As a result, Vice Provost Anthony Gene Carey wrote in the letter, some "students … do not feel safe in your classroom" because of the "intensity of the hostility that you expressed toward the university and its administration."

Price, a tenured full professor, said she had originally planned a lecture for that day but decided to show the film instead after a student complained earlier in the week that Price was hostile toward athletes. That allegation, which was included in Price’s disciplinary letter, centered on a classroom discussion about sexual assault accusations leveled against Appalachian State athletes and a resulting campus protest. The athletes’ cases are being tried in campus judicial hearings, the results of which are not public. They haven’t been charged in a criminal court.

Price said she feared the athlete who complained would think her lecture on gender and sexuality was a form of retaliation, so instead she decided to screen the film.

The offending discussion on athletes occurred on a Monday, the video was screened on Wednesday and the 60-person class discussed its content that Friday. That next week, over spring break, Price learned she was being placed on indefinite paid leave while campus officials investigated her conduct. Price — who said she is innocent of wrongdoing — believes she will be fired when the university completes its investigation.

Citing privacy laws, Appalachian State officials declined to comment. Faculty Senate chair Jill Ehnenn declined to comment on the specifics of Price’s case. But Ehnenn said administrators have always supported her when students challenged course materials in her women’s studies classes.

Adam Kissel, a vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, criticized Appalachian State for instructing Price to not discuss her situation with students or fellow faculty members while the case is pending. While colleges have the right to investigate faculty members in some cases, Kissel said telling them to cut off communication with those on campus can prevent them from contacting potential witnesses for their defense.

Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College, was a senior consultant for "The Price of Pleasure" and was interviewed in the film. She travels the country showing the film to college students and is a critic of pornography.

While she said professors should warn students about the content of the film and tell them they can leave without any repercussions (something Price didn’t do), she can’t understand why Appalachian State is taking action against Price. "This is what education is," Dines said. "You expose them to the reality of the world they live in and you use that exposure to develop a critical scholarly discussion in class, which is exactly what she did."

She said "The Price of Pleasure" has been screened at hundreds of colleges of all types nationally, and that she isn’t aware of any other professors facing consequences for showing the film

Price, who has taught at Appalachian State for eight years, believes the disciplinary letter is a result of a long campaign to remove her — a sentiment that she said started years ago when she was critical of administrators. She says she has been falsely accused of serious misconduct in the past and was accused of having sex with a student several years ago, an accusation she denies.

Price brought up that allegation in her sociology class this spring, something she was scolded for in her formal discipline. In the letter, Vice Provost Carey said that information "was unrelated to the course material outlined on the syllabus." Price said it was a meaningful way to engage students in a discussion about the seriousness of sexual assault.

Since being placed on leave last month, Price has retained a lawyer and has been working to clear her name. She said that she has wanted to leave Appalachian State for years, but hasn’t because she shares custody of her young daughters with her ex-husband, a fellow Appalachian State faculty member.

Price doubts she’ll keep her job after her formal hearing, and isn’t sure she’d want to return to an Appalachian State classroom anyway. She’s hoping to be cleared of wrongdoing, perhaps receive a severance payment and work on raising her children and writing fiction.

But first, she intends on seeing the disciplinary process through. To discipline someone for showing a serious academic film, she said, just isn’t fair.

"Sometimes students are going to be uncomfortable," she said. "The material they learn isn’t always going to be rosy. They talk about racism, they talk about sexism. Nowhere does it say we’re supposed to make them feel good all the time. Talking about pornography is one of those examples."

Schools: Appalachian State University