California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) canceled an event focused on sex toys after an angry parent complained that the content of the program was inappropriate for her adult daughter and her peers.
The event was planned by CSULA’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, a department of its Student Union, in conjunction with a local adult store. According to CBS News, money from student activity fees was going to be used for the event. Though questions about whether funding was approved through the right channels have yet to be answered, CSULA made clear through remarks from a spokeswoman that its actions were motivated by a desire to muzzle those who would educate the students on sex-related matters.
CBS Los Angeles reported last week that university claimed not to be aware of the thrust of the event until CBS, tipped off by the parent of a student who came home with a flyer advertising “Sex Toys R Us,” questioned administrators. Spokeswoman Jocelyn Stewart explained the university’s decision to move swiftly upon receiving the information: “This was a student-driven event, and when made fully aware, the university determined it was not appropriate, and we immediately canceled it.”
CSULA is a public university, legally and morally bound by the First Amendment. It may not shut down student-driven events merely because they are, in an administrator’s judgment, “not appropriate.” Indeed, advocacy for women’s suffrage was once widely considered “inappropriate” (or worse). This vague and subjective standard makes nearly all student speech vulnerable to censorship and is bound to be abused to silence those with controversial viewpoints.
Stewart also noted that the campus is home to two high schools. As FIRE has noted before, the Supreme Court has held that government actors may impose narrowly targeted content-based restrictions to shield children from certain sexual materials in some instances. But any such restrictions must be carefully crafted; government actors like CSULA may not “‘reduce the adult population … to reading only what is fit for children.’” Butler v. Michigan, 352 U.S. 380, 383 (1957). With regard to children, “[s]peech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject to some other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them.” Erznoznik v. Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205, 213–14 (1975).
In other words, narrowly targeted steps to limit children’s exposure to certain types of sexual content may be acceptable in certain contexts. But flat-out banning this event from campus because of its content is not. An institution of higher education that limits itself to that which it considers suitable for children will effectively gag students from discussing a broad range of serious and important issues.
By acceding to the demands of an upset parent, CSULA is setting a dangerous precedent for itself. Will it attempt to cancel any future event to which a parent objects, regardless of whether the planned content is clearly constitutionally protected? And if a student group properly applies for student fees to fund an event for sex-related educational programming, will CSULA use the same claim of “inappropriateness” to effect unconstitutional content-based censorship?
CSULA’s written policies boast that “[e]xposure to the widest possible range of ideas, viewpoints, opinions and creative expression is an integral and indispensable part of a University education for life in a diverse global society.” But it has revealed itself as a place where certain topics are off-limits and the sensibilities of individuals who aren’t even part of the campus community trump the rights of students to hear and share information.