When the University offered a class titled “English 317 -How to be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” in Fall 2000, family focus groups and members of the University’s Board of Regents, cracked down and fought to have the class banned, arguing that tax dollars should not be used in spreading such “dangerous lifestyles.” The class, which had nothing to do with initiation into the gay community, and much more to do with the literary impact of the gay community, was targeted, in an election year, for political purposes. Luckily for students, Prof. David Halperin re-offered his class in Fall 2001, and the academic freedom valued at the University was kept above political goals.
It seems as if that academic freedom, a value espoused by educational institutions throughout the nation, is once again under attack, this time in Kansas – the state which phased evolutionary biology out of its high school curriculum in 1999. This time, the attack on academic freedom is leveled at the Kansas University School of Social Welfare, where Prof. Dennis Daily runs a 500-person class titled “Human Sexuality in Everyday Life.” The class, which has been running for over 20 years, uses pornography and graphic audio-visual materials. The Kansas Senate, voting 24-13, passed an appropriations amendment that would revoke all funding for any department at a public university that used state money to buy materials deemed “obscene.” Instead of leaving lawyers with one vague term, this bill leaves them with three, by defining “obscene” as anything that an “average person” applying “contemporary community standards” would find “obscene.”
The future of this class would be easier to doubt if there was no educational value. However, KU administrators and students have repeatedly shown that they feel Dailey’s class is a valuable educational opportunity. The reason, as students explain, is that Dailey has excellent lectures and explanations that are enhanced by pertinent graphic footage; the pornography is an element of the class, not the central focus of it. Administrators have also defended the class, arguing that the materials are specifically formulated for a college-level human sexuality course.
The University faced a similar situation in 1992 when an art exhibit about prostitution was taken down. When the American Civil Liberties Union complained, Law Prof. Catherine MacKinnon called the incident “a witch hunt by First Amendment fundamentalists.” Censoring art and scholarship because they can perceived as offensive is a poor test of academic merit.
Ultimately, this action by the Kansas Senate is a serious threat to academic freedom across the nation. This bill sets a dangerous precedent that shifts authority over curriculum away from educators and towards elected politicians. Just as free speech allows minds to explore and challenge ideas, academic freedom allows for the exploration and contest of ideas in an educational setting. To violate the rights of KU to set its own curriculum is an affront to the very principles higher education is based upon, because it stifles academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. In 2001, Kansas brought back evolutionary biology as a part of its high school curriculum. Let us hope that this class will have a similar fate.