University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro defended the Knoxville campus’s spring “Sex Week” program under critical questioning Thursday from state Sen. Stacey Campfield in a legislative hearing.
“In my professional opinion, it is very, very important on a university campus to have some sex education going on,” DiPietro told the Knoxville Republican at one point, adding that if a single unwanted pregnancy or sexual assault was prevented as a result, that would justify the program.
“I have to go back to the First Amendment,” he said. “I have a professional obligation to preserve the First Amendment. I’m sorry.”
Campfield replied that he, too, supports freedom of speech under the First Amendment, but the issue is “forcing students to pay for speech they find objectionable.” He cited as an example a “transgender cross-dressing show” during the April week of events.
“If someone wants to dress up like a duck, God bless them. But I shouldn’t have to pay for it,” said Campfield.
DiPietro led a contingent of UT officials at a hearing before the Senate Higher Education Oversight Subcommittee. A group from the Board of Regents system was also on hand for the panel’s review of how mandatory student fees are spent on campuses around the state.
Both groups made lengthy presentations to the legislators — the hearing lasted almost two hours — including slide show presentations.
One slide showed that from 2010 until the present, UT has paid $495,385 for 96 speakers at campus student organization events, including those speaking at Sex Week. Regents schools have paid $703,724 for 239 speakers. In both cases, that is about 1 percent of the student activity fee budget.
Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who presided over the meeting, billed it as an information-gathering session. He said the subcommittee would compile a report for the full Senate Education Committee, possibly including recommendations for legislative action next year.
There were no recommendations for legislation at Thursday’s hearing, but there were several debate clashes between Campfield and DiPietro. Among them:
n 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.”
UT officials had explained that policy on speakers brought in by campus organizations, largely dictated by lawsuits and court decisions, required that the university be “content- or viewpoint-neutral.” Campfield said the list shows “there probably seems to be some content bias.”
“The list you have doesn’t reflect the whole portfolio of speakers we have on campus,” replied DiPietro.
He said many conservative speakers and Republicans appear on campus regularly, typically speaking without being paid a fee. He listed recent speakers including Sen. Lamar Alexander, former Sen. Howard Baker and Gov. Bill Haslam.
Further, he said, the College Young Republican chapter at UT has not requested funding for any speakers in the past three years and, if groups do not put in an application and go through the student-controlled selection process, they cannot get funding.
n Campfield said some Sex Week activities were apparently open to students who are under the age of 18, an assertion that one UT official acknowledged was correct. But DiPietro said that only “six out of 27,000” students were under age 18, and they were admitted under special circumstances that included counseling with parents.
The senator asked DiPietro if he considered it appropriate for underage youths to be viewing events at Sex Week.
“I have a personal opinion and a professional opinion,” replied DiPietro, adding his professional opinion was that UT policy calls for all students to be “treated the same.”
Campfield asked if the UT president would consider adjusting that policy.
“I think we would consider that, sir,” replied DiPietro.
Campfield questioned DiPietro and other UT and Regents officials at some length on whether some activities at sex week violated anti-obscenity laws and thus should have been banned since policy, as explained by the officials, excludes illegal activity.
The senator said that, “just titillation, no redeeming value” in some sex week presentations, which appeared the case to him, there would be an apparent violation of obscenity statutes.
But Matthew Scoggins, associate general counsel at UT, said lawyers reviewed the proposed program in advance and “determined we did not have the authority” to reject any of the programs.
Campfield asked what the redeeming value would be in a program entitled “How many licks does it take?”
“What I’m telling you is that it was not obscene under the statute,” said Scoggins. “Certainly, a large number of our students thought they (the programs in general) had value.”
Scoggins and Katie High, UT vice president for academic affairs, both said while being questioned that they had not attended any of the events. Campfield questioned how they could know the events were not obscene if they had not attended.
Scoggins said that the review was made before the events based on program descriptions and any attempt by UT to block approval in advance would have been “prior restraint,” a violation of First Amendment rights that could have led to a successful lawsuit against UT.
“So it could have been obscene?” asked Campfield.
“It could have,” replied Scoggins.