NASHVILLE — Conservative state lawmakers have turned to money for leverage as they try to keep University of Tennessee leaders from allowing Sex Week activities on the system's Knoxville campus.
Failure to rein in the program could put state funding for the university in jeopardy, two Senate Committee chairmen warned top university administrators.
"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," wrote Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, in the letter. "This inaction is unacceptable."
The lawmakers' letter to UT system President Joe DiPietro and UT at Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek says Sex Week organizers promote this week's 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."
They charge that the event, organized by Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, features lectures given by a porn actress and filmmaker, a drag show, an aphrodisiac cooking class and condom scavenger hunt.
"This is not a First Amendment issue," the lawmakers wrote, saying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling says material can be judged "obscene" under certain tests. The definition of obscenity "could not fit any better than it does when describing the events" at Sex Week, Bell and Gresham said.
In February, the House approved a resolution condemning Sex Week on a 69-17 vote. The nonbinding measure is sponsored by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, and is under consideration by the Senate.
UT officials and organizers of the event say it is intended to educate students in an entertaining way on issues ranging from sexual assault to safe sex.
DiPietro on Wednesday again voiced concerns about the school running afoul of constitutional free speech protections.
That's "based on advice from counsel at our university and our situation with the First Amendment and having to stay within the bounds of it," DiPietro said. "And at this point we've not had any indication from anybody that there's an obscenity situation at all in this program."
Asked how he intends to deal with lawmakers' concerns, DiPietro said, "We need to work with them. We've not stopped negotiating with them and talking to them. But again we have a First Amendment issue here and we feel that we are within the bounds of it to do what we have to do."
But the socially conservative lawmakers warned "the university must understand that Tennessee taxpayers are not anxious for their legislature to appropriate new funds to this university when they see abuse of monies being used for this purpose."
Critics were far from satisfied during a Senate Education Committee meeting late Wednesday afternoon. Bell presented a new Senate resolution. He said it directs UT trustees and university officials to come up with a policy requiring parents to "opt in, not opt out" and "make an active choice to pay" for programs like Sex Week, which are funded out of student activity fees.
University officials would then report back to the Legislature.
Bell read portions and paraphrased sections of an email he said he received from the mother of a UT student. The woman said while her daughter did not participate in Sex Week, she found herself "attacked" walking to class by participants dressed up as "male and female genitalia."
The resolution didn't go far enough to suit Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who taunted GOP colleagues for only pursuing a resolution.
"I pretty much feel most resolutions are worth the paper they're written on. They're almost worthless," Campfield said.
Campfield said colleagues' latest actions simply gave UT officials "one more chance." He likened the situation in the 1970s R-rated movie comedy, "Animal House," in which a fraternity was put on "double secret probation."
Floyd's resolution attacks organizers, not university officials, for what it calls an "outrageous misuse of student fees and grant monies."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
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, ...