Tennessee Legislature Trying to Abstain from University Sex Week

April 8, 2016
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logo_mediumThe Tennessee legislature is considering a bill that would violate the free speech rights of students on university campuses around the state, especially with regard to discussions of sexuality.

The proposed legislation, HB2248, “prohibits state funds from being expended in support of the office for diversity and inclusion at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville,” and reallots some of the funds to making bumper stickers that read “In God We Trust” for the state’s law enforcement vehicles. The bill specifically targets Sex Week, a week-long sex education initiative on the Knoxville campus.

Sex Week “strives to foster a comprehensive and academically-informed conversation about sex, sexuality, and relationships with the purpose of educating the University of Tennessee student body and the Knoxville community through innovative, collaborative, and entertaining programming and events,” but members of the state legislature have been waging an ongoing battle against the program since its 2013 inception.

The program doesn’t actually utilize any taxpaper funds; instead, it is supported entirely by student programming fees. But that doesn’t seem to matter to some lawmakers, who would rather stifle free speech than let college students (who are, it doesn’t even need to be noted, adults and not obligated to attend) learn about sexuality.

The bill’s author, James “Micah” Van Huss, denies it will violate student’s free speech rights, and he’s set on using the legislature to pass punitive budget cuts to attack university administrators who don’t hold his beliefs and to keep Sex Week from happening. As Tyler Kingkade quotes Van Huss for Huffington Post: “Nothing opens the closed minds of administrators faster than the sound of pocket books closing shut.”

If this legislation seems familiar, it may be because the Tennessee bill echoes the legislative attacks on colleges in South Carolina that resulted from the use of LGBTQ literature — including Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home — in voluntary reading programs for incoming freshmen. In South Carolina, the legislature didn’t succeed in taking money away from the universities they were targeting, but they did succeed in reallocating it to, of all things, educational materials about the Constitution.

Interestingly, HB2248 is cosponsored by Martin Daniel, who represents Knoxville in the legislature and is otherwise known as an advocate for free expression. But Daniel doesn’t seem to recognize that the program is not funded by state money:

“I fully support freedom of speech on campus, and the students’ right to express themselves in any way,” Daniel told HuffPost. “Whether state dollars are used to pay for that speech, or support programs surrounding that speech is another matter, and therein lies the distinction.”  

This is just the latest attack on Sex Week. The Tennessee legislature has been waging a war of attrition on the program, first by trying to pass legislation that prevents state universities from using taxpayer funds to pay guest speakers (such as those who would participate in Sex Week and extending even to commencement speakers), and then by forcing the university system to use an opt in system regarding the use of student fees for student-run events like Sex Week (with, no doubt, the hope that students would overlook or decline the option, thus defunding the program).

While the legislation specifically targets Sex Week, it could have a chilling effect through the state university system, impacting not just student speech but also academic freedom. If the legislature is willing to stifle such programs, what’s to keep them from using state law to attack the materials used in university classrooms? It doesn’t seem unreasonable that legislators would use the same reasoning to attack the use of books like Fun Home, Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, and other graphic novels and books that deal with sexuality in courses. Or, even more disturbing, that instructors in the university system might decide to avoid using such materials just to avoid controversy.

The legislation is scheduled to be debated by the state Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on April 12. We’ll continue to follow its progress (or, hopefully, lack of progress).

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