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Profs lecture 'Sex Faire' critic

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

Penn State campus event is protected free speech, lawmaker told.

HARRISBURG -- Several Penn State University professors yesterday defended a controversial campus event called Sex Faire, saying it was constitutionally protected free speech.

When state Rep. John Lawless, R-Montgomery, threatened to try to cut off $330 million in state funds to Penn State to protest the event, he wrongly anointed himself arbiter of what is appropriate speech on a college campus, the professors said at a news conference yesterday.

"Clearly, the Supreme Court has made it well settled law that bad taste is not a sufficient reason to censor speech," Professor Robert D. Richards said. "We don't want to see other universities stifling speech or events for fear of Rep. Lawless' wrath."

Lawless has assailed the university for allowing Sex Faire, a Feb. 3 event staged by a student organization. Lawless, who called the event obscene, didn't change his mind when he heard what the professors had to say yesterday.

"I thought Monday was a school day," Lawless said. "I thought they'd be teaching. What, are there graduate students teaching their students, who pay thousands of dollars a year for tuition?"

Gov. Tom Ridge yesterday stepped between the warring parties, urging reconciliation.

The controversy has been swirling for weeks, gaining nationwide media attention, including interest from CNN, ABC's "20/20" and syndicated talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

The dispute may come to a head today, when Lawless shows the House Appropriations Committee a video he made at Sex Faire, a sparsely attended event sponsored by the feminist student group Womyn's Concerns.

Penn State President Graham Spanier is expected to be present to give his annual report to lawmakers and to ask for state funds for the university, an amount tentatively budgeted at $334 million for 2001-2002.

The video mainly shows Lawless confronting students and organizers at Sex Faire, which was supposed to give students information on cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and safe sex and to promote discussions over what is consensual sex. There were games such as "orgasm bingo" and an "erotic-foods-guaranteed-to-turn-you-on" table.

Lawless said there also were mail order catalogs for sex enhancers, XXX movies and other literature he called pornography. He branded the entire event as "classless acts of debauchery."

The "tent of consent," where students could spend two minutes alone after learning about consensual sex, was closed by the university, but the rest of the program went forward unimpeded, except by Lawless and his video camera.

On the video, Lawless chides the students by noting that the building, utilities, security and cleaning crews all were paid for by the university and, by extension, state taxpayers.

The direct cost to put on Sex Faire was $50. It was paid out of student fees.

Lawless took a camera to the event because he was riled about a Nov. 18 "fest" at Penn State whose title included a vulgarism. Organizers promoted the event as a celebration of women's "anatomical jewels."

Yesterday, three Penn State professors, supported by two Dickinson School of Law professors, accused Lawless of "glomming" onto a less than noteworthy event just to create controversy. The constitution prohibits colleges and universities from censoring student speech, and that's what the events were, they said.

"Clearly, none of this was obscene under well established law," said Clay Calvert, assistant professor of communications and law at Penn State. "The answer is to counteract and counterargue. Don't censor it."

Richards, an associate professor of journalism and law, conceded event organizers could have phrased things more "gingerly," but said Lawless objected only because he found the events to be offensive. That's not legitimate grounds for censorship or cutting the university's state funding, he said.

In an open letter, the professors said that limiting free expression as Lawless proposed is unconstitutional and that if Lawless' objections were carried to a logical extreme, the state could set up a board to decide what events could be held at Penn State based on their content.

"Rep. Lawless does not like the message he heard at the event he attended. Yet information about sexual health issues for young people constitute ideas -- important ones for today's society," Richards said. "Would the state Legislature prohibit the speech of pro-life advocates on campus who often demonstrate with graphic posters of aborted fetuses because some people find those images offensive?"

University officials, offended at what they consider as an attempt by Lawless to create a media circus, have defended the students' right to hold the events and have refused to apologize for not stopping them.

University officials have said Spanier will use his time today before the House Appropriations Committee to reiterate that stance and to extol Penn State students' accomplishments, such as an annual dance marathon to raise money for charity.

Ridge yesterday scoffed at Lawless' "self-aggrandizing and sensationalist tactics ... exploiting the predictable media focus on such matters," but urged Spanier not to be confrontational with lawmakers because Lawless does have a point.

For example, the name of last fall's event was offensive and should not have been allowed, as it violated the rights of those who saw the banners and posters advertising it, Ridge wrote to Spanier yesterday.

And the university should have made sure minors could not attend Sex Faire, Ridge added.

"In the case of these two events, it does not appear to me that the university was as zealous in guarding the legitimate rights of the community as it was in protecting the free speech rights of students," Ridge wrote. "That is an imbalance that I believe can and should be corrected."

Ridge said the state would not cut off state money to the university over the controversy, as Lawless has sought.

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