Vulgar speech, language promoting terrorism and Sex Week at the University of Tennessee are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a UT professor said.
“We protect really foul, awful speech, and I respect that,” said professor Joan Heminway, professor of law, during a panel discussion titled at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center on Monday.
In May, Tennessee lawmakers signed into law a free speech bill that states “is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”
This was the first time in state history a bill was passed protecting free speech in academia. Dwight Aarons, associate professor of law at UT, reasoned that the expansion of the First Amendment rights over academia is due to ideology changes in society over time.
“As majorities change, as sentiments change, as ideas change, so our Constitution changes,” Aarons said.
Creation of the bill was sparked in part by the controversy surrounding the annual UT Sex Week. Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee oversees Sex Week as an educational event concerning student sexuality. Tennessee lawmakers have expressed prolonged opposition to the campus tradition.
Now, it is considered a lawful expression of free speech rights. Heminway, faculty supporter of the program, says that “even though she doesn’t always like to hear what [sex week presenters] are saying,” this discomfort is superseded by the freedom of expression and need for education.
The power of the bill reaches to other forms of expression on campus, from the White Supremacy Rally in Fort Sanders neighborhood and to the words yelled by students at football games.
“Speech should be met with other speech, except in extreme circumstances,” Heminway said.