Tennessee Lawmakers Consider Bill That Could Chill Free Speech

State lawmakers are pushing legislation to prevent the University of Tennessee from ever spending school dollars on student-organized “Sex Week” events.

The bill, HB2248, would prohibit UT from using state funds to promote the use of gender-neutral pronouns, or to “promote or inhibit the celebration of religious holidays,” in addition to barring funding or support for Sex Week.

The bill would also trim $436,700 next year from the UT Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and direct $100,000 to purchase decals with the motto “In God We Trust” for law enforcement vehicles.

It’s the latest salvo in a four-year-long battle between conservative politicians in Tennessee and the state’s flagship campus in Knoxville over Sex Week, and one that some insist is threatening students’ First Amendment rights. 

Sex Week is an annual series of events organized by the student group Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, or SEAT. It includes lectures, panels and workshops about abstinence, sexuality, body image, sexual relationships, BDSM and oral and anal sex. 

“We’re really focused on creating a healthier and safer campus community for students,” junior Colleen Ryan, co-chair of SEAT, told The Huffington Post. 

No Tax Dollars Go Toward Sex Week

Conservative lawmakers for years have demanded that UT put a stop to Sex Week. Speaking to a Fox News talking head last week, state Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland) said he’s amazed that Sex Week continues despite lawmakers’ request that it “cease and desist,” and said they now need “to legislate” over it.

But students aren’t happy with the threats. “It would be a violation of our free speech to tell us we can’t have these events on campus,” Ryan told HuffPost.

Indeed, the suggested laws could inhibit free speech rights on UT’s campus, according to Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. 

“Sex Week clearly constitutes protected speech,” Cohn said. 

No university money has gone into the Sex Week events since the first year, 2013, when conservative lawmakers successfully pressured UT administrators into yanking school funding for the events. Since then, it’s been entirely funded by student programming fees, and UT officials confirmed to HuffPost that this year there is still no university tax or tuition dollars going into Sex Week.

When they start threatening funding, they’re chilling speech.”
Joe Cohn, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

A UT spokeswoman added that the university “does not regulate free expression activities on the basis of viewpoint,” due to the First Amendment.

Legislators are “trying to twist the University of Tennessee’s arm into censoring its students,” Cohn told HuffPost. There’s nothing wrong with legislators criticizing students for how they choose to use their fee money, Cohn said, “but when they start threatening funding, they’re chilling speech.”

In other words, while tax dollars supporting Sex Week is a moot point for now, the threat of legislation could spook administrators into shutting down other controversial content on campus to avoid the wrath of state lawmakers and funding cuts.

Bill Sponsor Insists They Aren’t Threatening Free Speech

When asked by HuffPost on Tuesday if the legislation barring state funding from Sex Week inhibits students’ free speech rights, state Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss (R-Jonseborough) said, “Absolutely not.”

“If folks want to take funds out of their own pockets, they are free to do so,” Van Huss, the sponsor of HB2248, told HuffPost. (That is, in fact, what UT students are currently doing.)

Van Huss said he drafted the bill in response to repeated Sex Week controversies, and controversies over Christmas parties and gender-neutral pronouns at UT.

Several prominent GOP officials in December criticized the university’s diversity office over a memo suggesting that employees avoid using religious symbols in workplace holiday events. A few months earlier, lawmakers were similarly upset over false reports that the university had banned the use of “he” and “she,” though the school actually had just released a guide about how to use gender-neutral pronouns for trans or genderqueer students.

Van Huss said such guidance, which is often connected to the UT Office of Diversity and Inclusion, “in no way reflects the value of my constituents.” And, he added, “Nothing opens the closed minds of administrators faster than the sound of pocket books closing shut.”

Author Of Free Speech Bill Joins Effort To Stop Sex Week

One of the co-sponsors on Van Huss’ bill, state Rep. Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville), introduced legislation this year attempting to further enshrine free speech rights on college campuses. During debate in the legislature on the bill, he said free speech was so important that even Islamic State recruiters should be protected, which prompted House leadership to table the bill.

After the ISIS comment, Daniel released a statement that read in part:

The unavoidable fact is that the First Amendment guarantees us the right to express any opinion, including opinions that most of us find repugnant and fundamentally wrong, so long as they don’t cause an imminent risk of harm. To make it clear, there’s a big difference between saying that someone has a right to speak, and agreeing or disagreeing with the content of that speech.

Daniel said in an email Tuesday that his support of free speech is not contradicted by his co-sponsorship of the bill prohibiting UT from using school funds to support Sex Week.

“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.”  

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Check out the full schedule for Sex Week 2016! Which events are you most excited for?

Posted by Sex Week at The University of Tennessee on Sunday, April 3, 2016

In 2014, Tennessee lawmakers proposed blocking 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. They later succeeded in getting the university to change how it assesses student fees, forcing students to opt in to paying them in the hope it would lead to less money available for Sex Week organizers. 

Ryan, the co-chair of SEAT, said the students are just getting swept up in battles that rile up a voter base. 

“But we’re the ones who walk around campus every day and know friends who have been sexually assaulted, we’re the ones who have friends who would not be on campus without the Office for Diversity and Inclusion,” Ryan said. “It seems like the state should listen to the students a little more if they’re going to keep inserting themselves into university politics.”

The bill is scheduled to go before the House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee on Wednesday. 


Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter covering higher education, and is based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected], or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.


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