WHEN A COUPLE performed a sexual act in front of a University of Pennsylvania dorm window earlier this year, at least two cameras clicked away.
The couple’s faces are not identifiable. Only a pair of buttocks, a pair of legs and a bare back can be seen from the window. The gender is unclear.
Yet the grainy photos have touched off a controversy that has roiled the Ivy League campus and once again has plunged Penn into a rip-roaring controversy over free speech and student rights.
One of the photographers, an unidentified Penn junior engineering student, is facing sexual harassment and related charges from the school.
Those involved with the student’s case say the charges arose after someone complained about the photographer to the Office of Student Conduct, which handles misconduct allegations.
According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the accused student posted some of the sex photos on his Penn Web page.
Other shots were widely circulated via e-mail on the West Philly campus, the paper said. One now appears on the popular Web site collegehumor. com.
The proposed discipline includes probation, a permanent mark on the student’s college record, a letter of apology and an essay that would require reflection on the student’s part of what he did wrong, said Andrew Geier, a psychology graduate student who is advising the student.
The hearing is slated for this afternoon.
The university’s decision has renewed a running debate on the campus over issues of free speech versus so-called "political correctness," which places a higher value on blocking actions deemed sexually or racially offensive.
In the most famous episode, in 1993, a Penn freshman battled harassment charges after he shouted at some black students he thought were loud, calling them "water buffalo."
Alan Charles Kors, the Penn history professor who defended that student a dozen years ago, is now supporting the student charged in the sex-photo incident.
Kors said that shortly after the 1993 incident, the Penn Board of Trustees guaranteed students the same rights of free expression that public-school students would have under the U.S. Constitution. He added that he believes that the university’s decision has "already chilled free speech on campus."
Kors said he’ll take over the student’s case if today’s hearing goes against him.
Penn spokeswoman Lori Doyle would not discuss details.
"The disciplinary process is confidential, but we’re hopeful that this matter can be resolved quickly and satisfactorily… ," she said.
The pictures, which show a room in Penn’s Hamilton College House dormitory, were taken and posted on the Web in September.
The Daily News sent the Daily Pennsylvanian story to a photojournalism expert who works with the Poynter Institute, the Florida-based journalism think tank. He said the photo should be protected speech.
"No one is identified in this picture," said Kenny Irby, visual-journalism group leader and diversity director at Poynter. "That’s clearly a public space at a window in public view." He added there’s an equal questions as to "why these two are having sex in front of a window."
Geier, the student’s adviser, is dumbfounded by the serious charges, including the inappropriate use of electronic resources.
"Saddam Hussein is receiving better treatment by his captors than this kid has gotten by this university," said Geier, who said he has spoken with the American Civil Liberties Union about the student’s case.
Geier declined to reveal the photographer’s name, citing privacy reasons, but he did say the junior was "doing quite well."
Geier said the photo appearing on the college humor site is actually one taken by another photographer who witnessed the same sexual act.
Internet postings by readers of the student paper’s online version were overwhelmingly supportive of the student.
"What a joke! Close the freakin’ blinds. Tomorrow I plan to walk to class naked with a yellow stripe and I’ll sue anyone who takes a pic," wrote J Siev, a Penn grad student.
A 2001 grad living in Manhattan wrote: "If you’re having sex in public, you can’t expect privacy. Close the damn curtains! They were probably trying to ‘put on a show.’ "
But some posters defended the woman who apparently complained. "Why hasn’t anyone not though [sic] about the rights of the student who is pictured? YES, they were indecent and in the view of the public… sort of.
"If you live in the high rise directly across from them AND use binoculars to stare into other people’s rooms! What kind of hobby is that for an ‘upstanding, Penn student’ on a fridaynight!"
Schools: University of Pennsylvania