A group of conservative Tennessee lawmakers plan to punish the state's flagship public university over a student-organized event in early March called "Sex Week" -- by dramatically cutting back its ability to host guest speakers.
State lawmakers are moving forward this week with a vote on legislation that would bar the University of Tennessee (UT) and other public institutions of higher education from using institutional revenue to "engage and pay visiting or guest speakers for events." Even commencement speakers who asked the school to cover travel and lodging costs or who sought a speaker fee would be eliminated. (The legislation would not prevent the hiring of guest faculty to conduct classes for which students receive credit.)
Another bill would require state colleges to distribute student fees to pay for guest speakers "proportionally based on membership" of the student groups inviting the speaker.
Both of these bills were authored by state Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) and were scheduled for their first committee vote on Wednesday. They are being pushed in response to Sex Week, a week-long student-organized and student-funded event at UT's Knoxville campus discussing sexuality, LGBT issues, sexual health and related topics.
Campfield previously gained national recognition -- and stirred national controversy -- in 2012 for his "Don't Say Gay" bill, which would have prevented schoolteachers from discussing homosexuality. The legislation ultimately did not pass that year or when it was resurrected in 2013.
Last week, two other state senators -- Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) -- issued a letter to university leaders warning that state funding for the university may be in jeopardy, even though no taxpayer funds went toward Sex Week.
Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has not said whether he would sign the bills into law.
University leaders have repeatedly explained to lawmakers that they could not block Sex Week because the First Amendment protects college students' right to speak, and legal experts have backed them up. Bell and Gresham argued in their letter that the university could have shut down the event on the grounds that it was obscene. But UT system President Joe DiPietro told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the university did not have "any indication from anybody that there's an obscenity situation at all in this program."
Attendance at Sex Week increased this year, according to the school's Daily Beacon. Sex Week organizers told HuffPost that there have been no protests against it on campus, while an UT administrator said in February that the university had received no calls of complaint from local community members or alumni.
A UT-Knoxville graduate student provided The Huffington Post with a form email she received from Campfield in response to her objections to his legislation. The lawmaker said:
While I support diversity of thought at the university, what is currently in place is not diversity. Sadly, when you look at a list of the paid speakers for the university the vast majority are from one point of view and balancing points of view are minimized.
UT administration and faculty leaders, who firmly oppose both bills, agree with Campfield on that one point -- that a university should be a place where many voices are heard.
"If people realize we're an institution that doesn't allow outside speakers, I think that could have a significant impact," UT faculty senate president David Golden told the TV station WATE. "I can think of no better place for contradictory, conflicting, controversial ideas to be presented than on a university campus."