by Dan Savage
on Thu, Mar 12, 2009 at 9:51 AM
That's an interesting argument for a law professor to advance—I mean, we all know that you're not allowed to scream "fire" in the proverbial crowded theater (unless your proverb is actually on fire), and libel is a no-no, but most Americans regard freedom of speech as absolutely absolute otherwise, particularly where newspapers are concerned, seeing as...
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press....
A University of Montana law professor has taken her concerns about a weekly sex column in the student-run newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, to top school administrators. Professor Kristen Juras wrote a letter last week to UM President George Dennison and School of Journalism Dean Peggy Kuhr.... And, Juras said she'll take her complaints about student Bess Davis' “Bess Sex Column” all the way to state higher education officials if necessary.
“Freedom of speech is not absolute,” Juras said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “There is accountability and responsibility. (The Kaimin is) funded by taxpayer dollars and tuition fees for an educational purpose, and they have to stay within that purpose.”
You could argue that a sex column serves a crucial "educational purpose." Many students today arrive at college dangerously misinformed about sex and for their own health and safety—and for the health and safety of their partners—they need to be brought up to speed on birth control, disease prevention, obtaining consent, etc. Someone has to undo the damage done by those taxpayer-funded abstinence-only "education" programs many of today's yound adults were subjected to in high school. You could even argue—and I shall now argue—that a college newspaper that doesn't feature a sex column that stirs messages about safety and responsibility in with the kind of sensationalistic sex tips that keep students reading is being negligent.
Another of the school's law professors, Rob Natelson, accused the student paper of "distributing porn among unmarried post-pubescents" in the form of a sex column. Um, Professor Natelson? Unmarried post-pubescents looking for porn don't rush out in the morning to pick up a student newspaper. If you're concerned about keeping porn from unmarried students you should lobbying the state legislature to ban Internet access on your campus, not hounding the editor of the student newspaper about what is a rather tame sex column.
The column gives tips on everything from cheap, stay-in dates to new sexual positions. In fact, Davis, a 21-year-old senior in journalism, describes the column as “vanilla” compared to other sex columns published nationally...
Gee, way to throw me under the bus, Bess. Thanks.
UPDATE: Lee in comments makes a great point. We shouldn't be arguing about free speech here—although that is where the profs chose to go—but instead about what exactly a student newspaper is for.
I think the counterargument needs to take place on a completely different level: broad operating freedom for this student newspaper, and a certain level of shielding from state politics, is the only way to preserve the educational value of the enterprise. In other words, Montana taxpayers are funding the opportunity for students to run something that has the attributes of a privately-owned media enterprise. They are not funding a state mouthpiece, and the views expressed blah blah blah.
In other words, it should be thought of more as a Model UN, and less as the campus newsletter. No one gets upset when a student, at "taxpayer expense" pretends to represent Iran at the fake UN assembly. Why? Because the whole point is learning, not PR.