New Tennessee Bill Could Restrict Campus "Free Speech"

4:32 PM College Lawyer Blog 0 Comments

April 8th, 2016 

Mount Pleasant, Michigan 

Lawmakers in Tennessee are pushing forth a legislation to prevent the University of Tennessee (a state funded institution) from spending school dollars on student-organized events. 

The bill, HB2248, would prevent UT from using state money to promote the use of "gender-neutral" pronouns. The bill would also prohibit UT from using state funds to promote or stop the celebration of religious holidays.  

The bill is a direct response to the University of Tennessee's "sex week". According to an article written by Tyler Kingkade from the HuffingtonPost, UT's "Sex Week" is an annual series of event hosted and organized by students which included lectures, panels and workshops about abstinence, sexuality, body image, sexual relationships, and oral and anal sex. One student told the HuffingtonPost that the objective is to create a healthier and safer campus for students. 

Conservative lawmakers have made requests in the past that "sex-week" cease and desist on UT's campus and now republican lawmakers want to legislate over it. However, UT's students are not happy with the threats. Students believe the bill, and the prohibition of sex week would infringe on their right to free speech.  According to Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sex week does constitute protected speech. 

Since Sex-Week's conception in 2013 no university or state money has gone towards any Sex Week events. After the first year of sex week lawmakers successful pressured administrators at the University of Tennessee to yank funding for these events. Since then the program has been entirely funded by student programming fees. 

The bill also cuts over $430,000 from the UT Office of Diversity and Inclusion and directs $100,000 to purchase car decals with the motto "In God We Trust". The car decals are expected to be used for law enforcement vehicles. 

Cohn continued to tell the HuffingtonPost that although there is nothing wrong with lawmakers expressing their dislike for how students spend their fee money but "the minute they start threatening funding they're trying to chill speech" (Cohn). Essentially, while tax dollars supporting sex week is irrelevant at the moment, the threat of legislation could scare administrators into shutting down other potential controversial content around the campus to avoid the harsh punish of funding cuts. 

In 2014 lawmakers proposed blocking UT and other higher education institutions from using institutional revenue to pay for speakers for events -- even commencement speakers (Kingkade). Lawmakers later succeeded in forcing students to opt into paying student fees hoping this would make less money available for sex week events and organizers. 

Lawmakers understand that nothing gets university administrators to listen better than the sound of the checkbook closing. Students at the University of Tennessee feel that they are constantly caught in political battles when all they're aiming to do is create a better life for all students on campus. 

State legislators are out of touch with the students and what is happening on campus. Colleen Ryan, a Junior at Tennessee who is very involved in sex week at UT, told the Huffington Post, "“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" (HuffingtonPost). 

Nonetheless the bill certainly has UT's administrators attention. 

Tyler Webb
Editor-In-Chief, CLB
Senior Law Clerk, Levitt Law Firm


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