published Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Anti-Sex Week bill would affect UTC, too

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    Founders Hall stands at the front entrance of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Legislation proposed by Tennessee lawmakers out of disdain for the University of Tennessee's Sex Week would affect local public institutions, even if they do not have similar events.

The pair of bills proposed in the Tennessee General Assembly would change or even eliminate how fees are allotted for guest speakers at public institutions in the state.

"I'm sorry if UTC's students feel the impact on it," said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, an anti-Sex Week legislator. "But they need to focus on where the cause of this is."

That cause is the Sex Week event scheduled for March 2-7 at UT that is receiving no taxpayer dollars, but is upsetting Republicans for the second year in a row simply for the fact that it is occurring.

Funding for the event is coming from student activities fees that UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said amount to 21 cents per student. An additional $5,500 is coming through private backing.

The price could be much greater, though, even for schools such as UTC where there is no Sex Week event.

Of two retaliatory bills championed by Republicans, one would prohibit any institutional revenue sources, including student activity fees, from funding guest speakers on all public campuses in the state.

Gardenhire referred to that bill as "the hammer" that would be dropped if the other bill, which he called "the compromise," fails.

That "compromise" bill simply reorganizes the way student fees are allocated to student organizations by forcing institutions to award funding for guest speakers based on the size of the student organization.

The overall theme, Gardenhire said, is to politically balance the content that students are involuntarily paying for.

At UTC, where two councils consisting of students and faculty disburse student fees, neither option is appealing to student leaders.

"Our stance is that any legislative action that would change the current funding process is an overreach, especially absent a dialogue with our state representatives about that," said UTC Student Government Association President Robert Fisher.

Even the lesser of the two bills would cause a restructuring in the way student activity fees are awarded, and Fisher fears that a hierarchy of funding based solely on membership would dilute the diversity of programming on campuses across the state.

It is counter-intuitive, he said, for a place of learning to simply favor the loudest voices.

"I believe that higher education should force you to challenge your views. That's part of the experience," Fisher said. "It's a part of intellectual honesty, giving yourself the chance to hear what you don't want to hear as well."

Gardenhire said he would be open to meeting with local students who would be affected by the pending legislation.

"Maybe they can show me something that would help alleviate our concern," Gardenhire said before again pointing at the Knoxville campus as the villain. "In all sincerity, what people need to do is focus on UT and especially Chancellor Cheek and let them know what they're doing up there affects students down here."

Fisher is not turning on his UT system partners in Knoxville, though. The UTC Student Government Association passed a resolution against the legislation that has been proposed.

Student leaders at non-UT universities that are a part of the Tennessee Board of Regents also are passing similar resolutions.

By Thursday afternoon 1,932 students, faculty or staff in the UT system had signed an online petition in support of the current student fee allocation process. Fischer emailed the petition to the UTC student body.

The next step in defending the right of students to disburse student activities fees in the manner of their choosing, Fisher said, could be a letter-writing campaign.

UT administrators have been careful with their words though generally airing on the side that promotes free speech and a culture of diversity.

"Student leaders here and in Knoxville, they're sharp enough to know the impact this has on them as student leaders and their opportunity to host events and programs that are meaningful even if they're somewhat controversial," said UTC Vice Chancellor of Student Development John Delaney.

UT System President Joe DiPietro wrote an email to faculty and staff across the system last week encouraging sensitivity from event planners but asserting the need to protect free speech.

"Upholding the First Amendment right for the free and open exchange of views and speech on our campuses is a tenet we must continue to support," DiPietro wrote.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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