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VOL. 38 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 21, 2014

Sex sells as politicians use UT to fire up base

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With the budget debate looming in the General Assembly, and many other serious issues on tap as the Tennessee Legislature hits the home stretch, Republican leaders of the supermajority turned their attention to higher education.

Higher education is certainly a legitimate topic for a state legislature, one would think, particularly a topic that could lead to funding cuts and the banning of paid speakers at universities in Tennessee.

The issue under scrutiny: Sex.

That is, the second annual Sex Week at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The student-organized event – actually held in early March this year – is designed for university-aged students to talk about safe sex.

Students also learn to talk about sexual aspects openly, unlike some of those at the General Assembly who I have seen be afraid to name body parts in a discussion of sex education.

If our legislators cannot say the word “penis’’ in public, maybe the student group should be holding a Sex Week at the State Capitol. I know some students at the University of Tennessee who would be happy to oblige.

“I support Sex Week because making choices about your body is an important part of being a healthy adult, and you can’t make informed choices if you don’t have enough information,” says Dr. Tina Shepardson, Associate Professor in Religious Studies at UT, who was quoted on the Sex Week’s website.

“Besides, college is about education and thoughtful discussion, and that includes important topics like sex and sexuality.”

Mike Bell (R-Riceville), chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee and Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), chair of the Senate Education Committee, wrote a letter to Dr. Joe DiPietro, the system-wide president of the University of Tennessee.

They don’t think college age adults should be informed about sex and sexuality.

“We are writing to express our disapproval and dismay at the lack of leadership at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville regarding the events of Sex Week,” the letter stated.

“This inaction is unacceptable. The organizers of Sex Week have promoted the event as a sexual health event, when in reality the aim of the organizers is to thrust a radical agenda on the students of the University of Tennessee.”

GOP leaders are particularly upset the university allowed this event to continue after GOP leaders condemned it last year.

As we have seen before, some in the GOP get upset when people don’t listen to them.

Students pay a fee that can be distributed to student group for speakers, to pay for food for events and other event-related expenses.

Currently, the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus has more than 400 student groups that can request student fees for their events. Because a small group of students put on Sex Week, some legislators are trying to get involved with how fees paid by students can be used.

Senate Bill 1608, by Sen. Stacy Campfield (R-Knoxville) and Rep. Susan Lynn (R-Mount Juliet), would divide student fees proportionally based on the number of members in the group.

“SGA [Student Government] believes that student fee money should be allocated based on the merit of an event, not the size of an organization requesting money,” says Jake Baker, president of the Student Government Association at the University of Tennessee.

“UT has 400-plus student organizations, some big, some small, and they all bring something to our campus. Small student organizations have hosted great events in the past, and we want to ensure that these students will have access to funding in the future.”

College is a perfect time for students to learn more about freedom of speech. Blocking Sex Week because you don’t agree with the message is an attack on this basic right.

“Frank discussions about sex and sexuality, while perhaps offensive to some, are fully protected by the First Amendment,” says Susan Kruth, a Program Director at Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in a recent blog post.

“Opponents of the viewpoints expressed in and by Sex Week events are, of course free to hold their own events to get their message out, even if some Sex Week proponents would deem their ideas “radical” in turn.”

But Campfield has taken it a bit further with Senate Bill 2493, which also takes aim at Sex Week. Filed with Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R- Lenoir City), the bill would prohibit any state institution from paying for a speaker.

No more marquee named speakers at graduations, I guess.

“Senate Bill 2493 states that no university funds can be used to bring a guest speaker to campus,” SGA President Baker says.

“Guest speakers are an integral part of our campus community, and they contribute to the growth of our students outside of the class room. UT has hosted incredible guest speakers such as Tom Brokaw, Noam Chomsky and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Eliminating guest speakers from campuses across Tennessee would be detrimental to higher education in our state.”

These bills look as if each was filed by a 5-year-old who didn’t get his way.

When the University stood up to these elected officials, citing the constitution, officials decided it would be best to try and ban free speech.

The State of Tennessee has bigger education issues than what one university is doing with its student activity fees.

The Haslam administration has asked departments to cut their budgets, there is a debate lingering over whether Common Core should be implemented in the state, and Tennessee is trying to fight a deadly meth problem.

But GOP leaders are taking time to attack a premier university for an event with the goal of spreading important knowledge.

We have seen this over and over with the supermajority. One little incident happens, and the GOP will run with it to fire up the base.

But firing up your base because college kids are exploring their sexuality is simply wrong and wasteful of time and money.

If it were up to the Tennessee Republican Party, our children would grow up thinking they were dropped off by the stork.

Sex Week is trying to change that.

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