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UI officials have acted poorly in Bijou porn controversy

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 12, 2010 7:30 AM

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Apparently, UI officials are now in the censorship business. At least that’s the contemptuous message they’re sending with the Bijou porn-movie situation.

Earlier this week, students in charge of the Bijou acquiesced to interim Vice President of Student Services Tom Rocklin’s concerns about an adult film called Disco Dolls in Hot Skin.

And on Thursday, Bijou executive director Evan Meaney told the DI he has spoken with Rocklin about setting up a “defense process” in order to deal with future films with “questionable content.” Bijou board members would speak with UI officials about controversial films before deciding whether to pursue showing them.

Both developments should be unsettling for defenders of the First Amendment. The euphemistic “defense process,” as Meaney phrased it, would essentially codify a process in which officials could object to risqué films. The Bijou should have complete autonomy, however, and should reject UI usurpation of that power.

Rocklin’s actions are also disconcerting. While the students could have fought Rocklin’s objections to screening Disco Dolls, they chose to hold out for a time when they could fight for a more substantive movie.

“I’m very familiar with censorship laws,” Meaney told the DI earlier this week. “Normally, when I see things censored, red flags go up. I don’t think that this is that.”

We disagree. Rocklin was wrong to question the content, and his actions are an affront to the democratic freedoms we hold dear. It’s disappointing the students didn’t push back against Rocklin’s decision. While it may be a “gimmick” of a movie, as Meaney described it, Rocklin’s actions increase the likelihood of future censorship.

He said he didn’t see the educational value of the film, so he decided to step in.

“It is clearly not in the public interest for a public facility at a public institution to be showing a film of this nature,” Rocklin said in a statement. “If showing the film were essential to an educational objective, the situation would be different. The intent in this case was to provide entertainment.”

But it is egregiously shortsighted for UI administrators to think they know what is appropriate for adults and that “educational purpose” is the absolute barometer of value, merit, and above all, constitutional protection.

Although we’re not lawyers, legal precedent doesn’t seem to be in UI officials’ corner.

In the 1973 Supreme Court case Papish v. University of Missouri Curators the court ruled in favor of a Missouri graduate student who published an alternative newspaper with an article titled “M----- F----- Acquitted.” The court decided with this case — and Healy v. James — that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.”

Still, the Bijou’s programming budget comes from ticket sales, and the cinema is partially funded by the university. The university’s relationship with the theater significantly muddles the issue, and it’s unclear which side would win in a hypothetical court case. But in our minds, the sheer appearance of censorship and First Amendment violation should have made Rocklin question his objections.

In addition, Bijou students should steadfastly resist any efforts by university officials to control its screening schedule.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once said, “The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is beside the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.”

It might have been inconvenient for the university to let this issue slide past its radar, but it would have been the appropriate action. With the state’s budget crunch, the UI is undoubtedly under more scrutiny from the public and, as journalism Associate Professor and media-law expert Lyombe Eko pointed out, could face financial repercussions for screening the movie.

“The students have the right to experiment with the niceties of the First Amendment … but they have to bear in mind that in Iowa and other jurisdictions, legislators have the right to experiment with budgets,” Eko said.

But by setting their own precedent, UI officials have left a nefariously indelible mark. Their decision to quash the screening of Disco Dolls makes future censorial actions more likely, as would a so-called “defense process.”

The Bijou has shown pornographic films in the past — including Disco Dolls three years ago — and negative press was minimal at best. In trying to protect the overly sensitive, Rocklin trampled on the fundamental free-speech rights of UI students and community members who wished to view the film. And in the process, officials have likely offended more by their actions than if they had simply kept quiet.

Your turn. Was Tom Rocklin right to quash the Bijou’s screening of a porn movie? Weigh in on dailyiowan.com.


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