NASHVILLE — A conservative Republican lawmaker says he sees a liberal slant among Tennessee public university student and faculty councils choosing speakers and events paid for from student activity fees.
During this year's legislative session, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, criticized "Sex Week" at the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus. The university yanked state funding but the event went on, funded by student activity fees.
At a Senate study committee hearing Thursday, Campfield amped up his attacks to cover public higher education events in general across the state.
The hearing was on how decisions are made to spend student activity fees by UT and Tennessee Board of Regents institutions and various boards and councils.
Campfield told reporters later he'd only found one conservative speaker at UT and that was three years ago.
"I can't imagine that out of all these clubs that are out there, that we have all of these liberal speakers and for some reason the conservative point isn't there," he said.
Campfield; Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; and the panel's chairman, Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, will ask the full Senate Education Committee to press higher education to change how student, faculty and staff boards and councils make funding decisions.
Earlier, UT system President Joe DiPietro told lawmakers that public colleges and universities have little ability to control who speaks and who doesn't. He cited lawsuits, including a 1969 action UT lost after it refused to allow activist Dick Gregory and LSD advocate Timothy Leary to speak.
"We lost that suit" on First Amendment grounds, DiPietro said.
Tennessee Board of Regents general counselor Mary Moody said suits here and in other states have created a legal framework in which student groups and their events and speakers are approved on a "content or viewpoint neutral" basis.
Gardenhire recalled how as a UTC student in 1971 he and others sued to do away with student activity fees.
The fees fund a number of activities and programs besides student events, and a prior court decision said institutions can compel students to pay them.
Campfield said in the hearing that a list of 92 paid speakers over a three-year period at the Knoxville campus included Black Panther founder Bobby Seale; Daniel Ellsburg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war; numerous gay rights advocates; feminists; and others including famed linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky.
"That's about as far left as you can be," Campfield said of Chomsky, later adding, "this isn't even getting into Sex Week ... I'm seeing a whole lot of 'left.'"
He found just two conservative or Republican speakers, including then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
However, reporters glancing at the list saw at least three others, including free- market economist Kel Kelly. A number of speakers' topics did not appear, by their titles, to deal with political or sexual perspectives.
Campfield, meanwhile, lambasted the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which in 2012 had three speakers paid from student activity fees.
"One dealing with gay marriage, one dealing with group sex, I can't remember what the other one was, but it was along those same lines also," he said.
Records given to the committee show Daniel Packard was paid a $3,800 speaking fee for a "Live Sex Group Therapy" event. Zach Wahls, who wrote about his experiences being raised by a same-sex couple, spoke at an event. Marvelyn Brown spoke about HIV/AIDS awareness.
Gardenhire said his issue is the fee itself.
He said the system is "rigged" because events or speakers are approved in the spring before fall classes begin, which can result in an imbalance of views. It doesn't mean there is intentional bias but a "structural problem," the senator added.
Higher education should consider approving half the funding for advance bookings and reserving the other half for opposing groups to stage rebuttals in the same academic year, he said.
Supporters of Sex Week at UT said it was intended to educate students, with workshops on safe sex and preventing sexual assaults.
Campfield and other critics latched on to events such as discussions of oral sex, a "Golden Condom Scavenger Hunt," a drag show and a bondage expert.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...