Republican lawmakers in Tennessee are hellbent on trying to stop students and faculty at the state's flagship university from attending a series of events called "Sex Week."
Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, a student group at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is hosting Sex Week in early March for the second year in a row. Sex Week will feature a series of lectures about sexuality and sexual health, discussions about sexual violence, dance classes, a drag show, an art show and a poetry slam. There will also be a discussion on abstinence, and a forum called "Longterm Intimacy: Commitment and Sex," which the largest Christian group on campus is helping to organize.
Last year, the inaugural Sex Week attracted criticism from state lawmakers, prompting the university to cut funding days before the event kicked off. SEAT was able to fill the void with private fundraising, and the event was a success, attracting more than 4,000 attendees.
There is reportedly almost no visible opposition to Sex Week on the UT-Knoxville campus. In an interview with The Huffington Post, university Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said his office has not received any complaints from alumni or concerned citizens about the event. But that won't stop lawmakers from fielding three bills that aim to stop Sex Week from taking place, even though the school was ranked near the bottom for sexual health last year in an annual ranking by Trojan.
Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga) filed a resolution condemning the event that attracted 28 co-sponsors.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), with Reps. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City) and Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet) as counterparts in the state House, filed complementary bills that would require student fees to be distributed proportionally to the school's organizations based on membership. The bills would also prohibit the use of institutional revenue to pay for any guest speakers.
Floyd's is currently the only bill scheduled for an actual vote.
The student government responded to the bills with a petition voicing opposition to the legislation. The petition had attracted more than 1,440 signatures from the university community as of Friday morning. There is an additional public petition that has 200 signatures.
The bill changing how student fees are distributed does not explain how groups that embark on more expensive ventures -- like building a solar car, for instance -- would be differentiated from, say, an a capella group or a cheese appreciation club.
"Sex Week merely brought to light the inequity with the current system for distributing the wealth of the student activity fees," Lynn, the sponsor of the House bill calling for proportional funding, told The Huffington Post. "Our legislation will ensure a socially just dispersion, as well as educational and political equality for the use of the funds for all of the groups on campus."
Under the bill barring the use of institutional revenue to pay for guest speakers, everyone from former U.S. presidents to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and noted alumni would not be allowed to speak on campus if the university paid for their trips to Knoxville.
"The prevailing thought on campus is if the state can take away SEAT's rights because they don't like their programing," junior Grant Davis, director of student services at UT-Knoxville, told HuffPost, "then what other organizations or events on campus will the legislature decide to do away with next?"
State Sen. Campfield explained to Campus Reform that he felt his legislation was needed because "the state gives money to the university, which gives it to the schools and the schools are giving it to Sex Week.”
Except that's not what is happening.
The money for Sex Week primarily came from student fee money, which are not tax dollars and are separate from tuition. The chancellor's office notes that students voted several years ago to start this mandatory fee. Although UT students pay about $300 per semester in student fees, only 5 percent goes toward programming. The rest goes toward things like student health and the campus recreation center.
A board consisting of student body president Jake Baker and appointed administrators and students made the decision during the fall semester to award $20,000 in funding to SEAT to put on Sex Week. Any student organization can request funding for events like this so long as the event will be open to all students. The UT History Department chipped in $500 for an AIDS memorial quilt.
"[The legislators] don't care if I went out and privately fundraised $20,000 by myself, they don't want the event held on campus," said Brianna Rader, one of the organizers and founders of Sex Week.
As calculated by R.J. Vogt, editor in chief of the campus newspaper, Sex Week uses 0.27 percent of student programming fees at UT-Knoxville.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech watchdog group, told HuffPost in a statement the two "misguided" bills being pushed by Campfield would "impoverish the exchange of ideas precisely where it is supposed to be most robust."
"That some students (or legislators) may be offended by some of the ideas brought to campus is a reason to engage in more dialogue, not shut it down entirely," added Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. "Here at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, we often tell students that if they make it through four years of college without once being offended or having their ideas challenged, they should ask for their money back."
Chancellor Cheek independently made a similar comment.
"That's the role of great universities -- to allow the free exchange of ideas," Cheek said. "If we don't have different ideas, if we don't have controversial ideas expressed, then we're not really accomplishing the real mission of the university."
Cheek, who has frequently traveled back and forth between Knoxville and the state Capitol in Nashville this month to discuss Sex Week, said that "we have said to them time and time again this is a First Amendment issue," and that students have a right to choose what programs they want to have on campus.
"We have a very strong, positive working relationship with the legislature," Cheek said. "In this particular instance we are just on a different side with some of the legislators philosophically, and we have to justify why we are on that side."
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