Earlier this week, administrators from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT) announced that they had decided to rescind funding for “Sex Week,” a week of student programming regarding sexuality organized by the student group Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported yesterday that the decision to pull funding followed scrutiny and criticism from state legislators, including suggestions that the university’s budget should be reconsidered next year and calls for requiring UT administrators to testify before the state legislature’s Senate Education Committee.
While legislators focused on certain aspects of the planned programming, the News Sentinel reports that a variety of views were to be presented:
State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, had cited some of Sex Week’s more salacious workshop topics – “getting laid,” “sex positivity,” and “queer as a bug,” — in a House floor speech Monday night. He said legislators should step in to protect Christians from such offensive behaviors from campus organizations.
Other events include free HIV testing, a workshop on preventing sexual assault, discussions on abstinence and “concepts of virginity,” tips on talking to your parents and your doctors about sex and several panels on faith and sexuality, some backed by campus religious organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ.
In announcing his decision, UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said that the school “should not use state funds in this manner.” This afternoon, however, The Tennessean reports that private donors have stepped in to provide funding to allow the programming to continue as planned, pitching in more than $7,000 so far to make up for the $11,000 rescinded by the university.
So while the event appears ready to proceed more or less as planned, it is disheartening to see a state legislature threaten a university with funding cuts because of the content of student programming and expressive activity on campus. Here at FIRE, we’re reminded of the Oklahoma state legislature’s ill-considered “investigation” of the University of Oklahoma following a 2009 campus speech by noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote at the time:
If this investigation is indeed taking place, what the state legislature needs to understand is that in court cases dating back to the days of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, even investigating clearly protected speech on the basis of its viewpoint violates the First Amendment.
Think about it: If every time a student or faculty member invited, say, Rick Warren to speak on campus, they knew they would be subjected to a thorough and time-consuming investigation by state officials, you can all but guarantee that schools across the country would think twice before inviting Rick Warren. This would be a great way for state legislatures to chill speech they dislike without ever having to find the speaker guilty of a single thing. Talk about your un-American activities.
Given the fact the legislature clearly is concerned with nothing other than Dawkins’ viewpoint, such an investigation is improper and should end immediately.
Similar concerns are raised by the Tennessee legislature’s actions, where instead of the threat of an “investigation,” we see a threat to reconsider the school’s funding unless campus programming is changed to suit the legislature’s viewpoint. The chill on student and faculty expression that results from such threats is sadly all too apparent from the university’s decision.
Tennessee legislators would do well to remember Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter’s concurrence in the landmark 1957 case Sweezy v. New Hampshire, in which he made clear the importance of minimizing legislative intrusion into campus expression:
For society’s good — if understanding be an essential need of society — inquiries into these problems, speculations about them, stimulation in others of reflection upon them, must be left as unfettered as possible. Political power must abstain from intrusion into this activity of freedom, pursued in the interest of wise government and the people’s well-being, except for reasons that are exigent and obviously compelling.