There is a big controversy at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL) involving freedom of expression. The facts are, as we understand them, that UWL invited noted sex educator and free expression advocate Nina Hartley to visit and speak at the campus. Of importance to the tempest is that Nina is, or at least was, a porn star. Here is the Wikipedia entry on Nina. After Nina spoke to 70 students there was controversy and Chancellor Joe Gow took to the local newspaper to defend the decision. As the answer to why did he invite a porn star to campus Joe said:
My primary motive in inviting Hartley was to help promote the UW System’s “Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression,” implemented last fall by our Board of Regents.
You can find the Regents document here. The Regents saw the policy as a restatement of what they said over a century ago:
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
Joe’s response did not quiet the concern and he has taken action:
He agreed to personally compensate the university for Hartley’s $5,000 appearance fee, which was initially covered by student fees and interest. He is also booking a speaker from Fight the New Drug, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit dedicated to “raising awareness (of porn’s) harmful effects using only science, facts and personal accounts.”
One of the strange things about Nina’s presentation came out in the story about Joe’s actions. They said:
The event [Nina’s talk]did not appear on the university’s online events calendar and, unlike many events, was not made known to the press.
It does seem odd to hide away your freedom of expression speaker.
So what do we have to say about this sad story? First, we think Joe fails freedom of expression 101. We could have agreed that refunding the money to the students was a grand but silly gesture. Agreeing to bring in the alternative speaker was absolutely a failure to back free expression. The Regents say:
Each institution in the University of Wisconsin System has a solemn responsibility not only to promote lively and fearless exploration, deliberation, and debate of ideas, but also to protect those freedoms when others attempt to restrict them. [Emphasis added]
Joe failed to protect Nina.
Second, how did the initial situation happen? We have suppositions but only those from knowing how universities work. We do not have any inside details about what really happened. We think that the administration was looking at the first part of the Regent quote above and realized they were at risk because they had failed to promote the debate. The administration is heavily progressive so nobody wants to bring in a conservative and the available conservatives often like to stir up controversy and that can lead to violence. What are the other choices?
Sex. We can see the meeting. The students like sex and having a sexy speaker. The administration thinks we have met the Regents’ requirement without a big controversy of bringing an Ann Coulter type to campus. Everyone is happy but it still turns out to be a disaster. Now they have failed to meet the Regents’ expectation.
The answer is that we need to support Nina and Joe. Freedom of expression is freedom of expression. The statement says fearless exploration and deliberation as well as debate. Debate is only part of freedom of expression.
Yet, at the same time, somebody needs to be responsible for some balance over time. Let us use a real example. As chair of the accounting department we had a speaker at the banquet each year. We kept track of each speaker’s affiliation so that there would be a variety types of organizations (Big Four, other public, corporate, governmental/NFP) and actual organizations. Some organizations would volunteer every year and we told them no.
It is easy to see why administrators fail at free expression. It is a tough job. It is also part of their job description.