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Law Prof Battles Student Sex Column

Just a few days ago, I was praising the University of Montana for its innovative Grace Case Project teaming law and journalism students to cover the conspiracy prosecution of W.R. Grace & Co. Now from the same school comes a troubling story of a law professor who is trying to shut down a weekly student-written sex column published in the university's student newspaper, the Kaimin. The professor is threatening to take her fight all the way to the state legislature.

The law professor, Kristen Juras, teaches property and business transactions law, so perhaps she is a bit rusty on the First Amendment. She tells the Kaiman that she respects freedom of speech, but she then appears to suggest that free speech stops short of protecting material she finds to be inappropriate and unprofessional. She insists that the material in the column is inappropriate for college students and reflects poorly on the journalism school and the university as a whole. "It affects my reputation as a member of the faculty," she said.

Juras wrote to the Kaiman's editor Bill Oram and then met with him about the column, "Bess Sex Column," written by senior Bess Davis. According to the Kaimin, Davis has written five columns so far, dealing with such topics as sex toys, virginity and Facebook relationship statuses. This recent column discusses the shockingly verboten topic of massage. Davis does not claim to be a "sexpert," but says she has "been at this for awhile now." The newspaper runs the columns on its opinion page.

Juras contends -- if I understand this correctly from the news report -- that it is not the column's subject that offends her. Rather, it is the newspaper's lack of standards in allowing Davis to write about a subject on which she is not an expert. If the newspaper would adopt policies that would require a sex columnist to have a background in sexology, Juras would be satisfied. Her argument did not convince the newspaper's editor, so now she will take it to the student publication board. If she fails there, she will go to the university's Board of Regents and, if need be, to the legislature.

So here we have a law professor who appears to believe that the First Amendment does not apply to material that she finds inappropriate and unprofessional. Further, she appears to believe that freedom of speech does not condone the expression of opinions about topics by people not formally trained in those topics. Thankfully, others do not share her view. Clem Work, a UM journalism professor, told the Kaimin that the First Amendment most certainly protects the student editors' decision to publish this column. And Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, offers this reminder of why we need the First Amendment: "Speech that everyone thinks is appropriate doesn't need protection."

[Hat tips to How Appealing and Romenesko.]

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 13, 2009 at 02:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)


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