The College of William and Mary is forbidding performers and students from filming the Sex Workers’ Art Show scheduled for tonight. William and Mary President Gene Nichol criticized the event but insisted that it was protected by the First Amendment. However, the university claims that it fears that it will bear the blame if clips of the performances get posted on the Internet and viewed by minors.
Performers, concerned that without video evidence they may be open to charges of obscenity, may not follow through with the show. Organizers are discussing the university’s ban with an ACLU attorney. While a university can, generally, lawfully restrict the use of cameras at closed school-sponsored events, university spokesman Brian Whitson admitted that this was the only time to his knowledge that the university has restricted photography or cameras.
Moreover, stripping, while sexually explicit, is generally speaking considered protected expression. According to FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, sexually explicit but not obscene speech is a treated as a less-protected form of expression than most other forms of expression. "Obscenity" is an unprotected category of speech including such things as hardcore depictions of sexual acts. According to William and Mary Professor, William Van Alstyne, an academic freedom and free speech expert, the show here would likely not be considered unprotected obscenity.
It’s likely that the College of William and Mary is trying to avoid public embarrassment, but such a motivation should not be an excuse to censor or limit transparency. We’ll be watching to see if William and Mary stands by its decision.