Last Thursday night at a special Tennessee Senate panel meeting, University of Tennessee System President Joe DiPietro and state Senator Stacey Campfield shared their respective opinions on UT's use of student fees to support student-run "Sex Week" events. Torch readers might remember that earlier this year, private donors saved Sex Week after the school rescinded $11,000 originally set aside for the occasion. $6,700 in student fees were still used to fund the events. The Associated Press reported that Campfield "suggested ... that students should be able to opt out of their fees being used to pay for events they find objectionable." FIRE has written before about the imprudence of creating an opt-out system for student fees. In response, DiPietro emphasized that the university must disburse fees for speakers without consideration of the content of their messages, saying "While I may have personal views about some of those topics, I have a professional obligation to keep our university in a position that complies with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, "Campfield compiled a list of paid speakers at UT in the past three years that he said, with one or two exceptions, appeared to be 'left-leaning people.'" This, he said, shows "there probably seems to be some content bias." But DiPietro noted that many conservative speakers have spoken on campus for free and thus wouldn't be on the list. Further, he explained that regardless of the list, "[o]rganizations need to apply in order to gain or secure the funding." DiPietro said that UT's Republican group hasn't requested funding for speaker fees in the last three years. As reported in the Sentinel, Campfield's objections to Sex Week continued: Campfield, who has sponsored failed legislative efforts to ban elementary and middle school teachers from addressing gay issues, said he also worried that underage children attending the university would have access to adult material. DiPietro said that at the time of Sex Week, six of 27,000 UT students were under 18, and that all students should be "treated the same." It looks like this will be an uphill battle for Campfield—as it should be. According to State Senator Joey Hensley, the chairman of the panel, the Senate Higher Education Oversight Subcommittee will prepare a report for the Senate Education Committee, which could be used to guide the legislature next year. For now, Hensley remarked, "We've talked about it enough."
FIRE kicks off a billboard campaign in Detroit highlighting the importance of protecting free speech and that the First Amendment protects their right to criticize elected officials.