UT president says school can't ban Sex Week event

Friday, March 7, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 10

NASHVILLE (AP) - University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro is urging lawmakers not to pursue legislation that would penalize the school over its student-run Sex Week.

In a letter this week to Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham and Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell, DiPietro argued that First Amendment protections prevent the school from ending the event that has raised the hackles of GOP leaders in the Legislature.

DiPietro said he is growing concerned that "the attention focused on this matter by the General Assembly is quickly reaching a point that will cause greater harm and damage to the long-term interests of the University than any programming that may occur as result of Sex Week."

The weeklong event organized by students features seminars and speakers on issues that organizers describe as an "academically-informed conversation about sex, sexuality, and relationships with the purpose of educating the University of Tennessee student body."

Lawmakers have taken specific issue with panels concerning pornography and a contraceptive scavenger hunt.

DiPietro's letter was in response to one written earlier by Bell and Gresham that warned that new funding for the university could be threatened if Sex Week wasn't put to a halt.

DiPietro said that he has worked in "good faith" with legislative leaders concerned about the event, but that neither he nor Chancellor Jimmy Cheek are able to "commit that our efforts will mean that Sex Week and other controversial events do not occur in the future."

The Senate Education Committee has adopted a resolution expressing disdain at the Sex Week activities at the school, but one member, Sen. Stacey Campfield, wants to take further steps.

The Knoxville Republican has two bills scheduled for Wednesday's meeting that would either ban the use of any school funds to pay for outside speaker, or base student fees on the si ze of student groups' membership.

Limiting or outright banning outside speakers would be a heavy blow for the state's flagship public university that is trying to boost its research credentials. Students this week delivered a 3,500-signature petition to lawmakers urging them to not to pursue legislation aimed at halting Sex Week.

DiPietro acknowledged that some of the titles of the Sex Week events "may be offensive to the notions of decency and propriety of many citizens of Tennessee," but said those standards do not decide what is considered obscene under the law.

"The determination of whether material is obscene under the criminal law is made by a jury," he said, adding that university officials received no information of obscenity charges being filed by law enforcement during the event that ended Friday.