The Legislature, Sex Week and Free Speech at UT

Students at the University of Tennessee are talking a lot about sex these days, and several members of the Tennessee Legislature want to stop it. And while they are at it, Tennessee lawmakers also want to stop the University from bringing in dangerous radical speakers such as Tom Brokaw and Dolly Parton.

Last month, UT students held their second annual “Sex Week.”

I’m a proud graduate of the University of Tennessee, having obtained my Bachelor of Conservative Arts Degree in 1975 and my Juris Doctorate from the Big Orange Law School in 1978. I was very involved in student affairs during my years on The Hill, but I don’t recall the student body (so to speak) ever having a “Sex Week,” at least not officially. Heck, I was just hoping for an occasional sex night. I never dreamed of an entire week.

I do recall several unofficial sex-oriented student activities, such as the streaking fad that dashed across the campus and on to the Cumberland Avenue strip (again, so to speak), on a few warm nights in the spring of 1974. But “Streak Week” was not sponsored by the Student Government Association, the Inter-Fraternity Council, or even the Young Republicans. It appeared to be a spontaneous event, the forerunner of the modern flash mob, and in the case of “Streak Week,” it literally was a flash mob.

But Sex Week at UT last month was an official student event sponsored by a group called “SEAT” (Sexual Empowerment Awareness at Tennessee). It was apparently a big success, as more than 4,000 students participated.

Now let me quickly add what I mean by “participated.” Despite its provocative title, Sex Week at UT was much tamer than the unofficial Streak Week was in 1974. Sex Week was a series of lectures and workshops on topics such as “Avoiding Sexual Violence and Harassment,” “Sexual Health,” and even a discussion on the importance of abstinence, a topic for which I was an expert during my undergraduate years at UT.

Sex Week also featured a forum called “Long Term Intimacy: Commitment and Sex.” Interestingly enough, that forum was organized by one of the largest Christian groups on campus. Frankly, the whole thing sounded more like the 1969 Billy Graham Crusade than 1974 Streak Week.

But this did not stop Tennessee lawmakers from going berserk. When news of UT Sex Week reached Nashville, many members of the Tennessee General Assembly reacted like Claude Raines did in the movie Casablanca, when he learned that gambling was going on at Rick’s night club. They were shocked, shocked to find out that UT students were talking about sex!

Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga) filed a resolution condemning UT Sex Week, and the resolution was co-sponsored by 28 other members of the Tennessee legislature. By my UT math, this means that close to a third of the State House of Representatives condemned UT Sex Week.

State Sen. Stacy Campfield of Knoxville also joined in the hue and cry. Sen. Campfield should be a speaker at UT Sex Week, as he is outspoken on sexually related issues. A couple of years ago, he attracted national attention for his “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would have limited all sexually related instruction in Tennessee public schools to “natural human reproduction science.” I am not quite sure what this means, but something tells me that Tennessee lawmakers would still not be happy if next year UT students changed the name of “Sex Week” to “Natural Human Reproduction Science Week.”

Sen. Campfield is trying to nip future UT Sex Weeks in the bud with a bill that would require student fees to be distributed proportionately to the school’s organizations based on membership. However, given that 4,000 students participated in the most recent UT Sex Week, SEAT might attract so many members that under Sen. Campfield’s proposed law, Sex Week would get more student money than the homecoming queen contest.

Sen. Campfield is apparently also worried about UT bringing in outside speakers to talk about sex, or for that matter, any other dangerous liberal topics. He has proposed a bill that would prohibit the use of any UT revenue to pay for guest speakers. This would include outside commencement speakers. Among the radicals that UT has brought in to be commencement speakers in recent years have been Tom Brokaw and … Dolly Parton.

Yes, Dolly Parton, the Jane Fonda of Sevierville.

In the weeks following UT Sex Week, UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek made frequent trips to the State Capitol in Nashville to tell Tennessee lawmakers that crucial First Amendment issues are at play. “A great university allows the free exchange of ideas,” Chancellor Cheek said. “If we don’t have different ideas, if we don’t have controversial ideas expressed, then we are not really accomplishing the real mission of the university.”

Unfortunately, many members of the Tennessee legislature feel the real mission of the university is to promote football and discourage sex.

Well, as a Tennessee alum, I have a solution that will allow free speech to flourish at the University of Tennessee while not offending Tennessee lawmakers. Next year, the featured speakers for UT Sex Week should be Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Bill O’Reilly. These are three conservative men with broad experience in sexual relationships.

BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.