Feb. 28, 2001 -- They say sex sells, but at Penn State University, it may be that political controversy is even more of a draw.
When a women's group at Penn State University held a sex education fair that some critics say crossed the line from educational into lurid, the presence of Rep. John Lawless — at the event to shoot videotape he would use in an attack on university funding — may have lured as many people as the anatomically correct gingerbread men and women.
Sex Faire, a one-day event that drew fewer than 200 students on a campus of more than 41,000, was the spark for Lawless to call for the House Appropriations Committee to hold up funding for the school. He said the Legislature should not grant Penn State's $362 million budget request until the administration takes action to make sure that events on campus do not violate community standards.
The issue raised questions of whether a university can restrict students' First Amendment rights, and of what exactly makes up the community of a university.
"I find it incredible that lawmakers would want the university to violate the constitutional rights of these students," said Robert Richards, an associate professor of journalism and law who was one of five faculty members to sign an open letter to the General Assembly. "I sat through the four hours [of the committee meeting] yesterday and what is most discouraging to me is that he [Lawless] had some supporters. He had some people who were clearly on his side."
Lawless showed four minutes of videotape culled from what he shot at the fair during a hearing Tuesday, and it drew a crowd of more than 100 people to hear lengthy questioning of the president of the university, Graham Spanier.
"I hope you're embarrassed, because I'm angered and embarrassed," Rep. Samuel Rohrer said to Spanier, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "This incident was reprehensible … debauched …wrong."
'Search for Truth'
The view from the campus was somewhat different. Even religious groups that objected to the message of the fair or the language in which it was expressed supported the university's decision to allow the event to be held.
A letter to the speaker of the state House of Representatives signed by leaders of various religious groups and sent on the letterhead of Kenneth Clarke, the director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs, referred to the diversity of voices allowed to speak on the campus. It said singling out events that drew few students paints a false picture of the school.
"We urge those who now stand in judgement of Penn State to carefully balance the positive attributes that spring forth from this incredible learning community," the letter said. "Please search for truth and do not let the hype concerning these events cloud your judgement."
The letter from the five law, journalism and education professors took a somewhat different tack.
"As a state-related university, Penn State is a part of government for purposes of the First Amendment," the letter read. "All the prohibitions government face when attempting to restrict speech apply to Penn State. Rep. Lawless, in essence, is asking Penn State to violate settled principles of law and is basing his decision on the University's funding to do so. We find that to be a rather odd position for a lawmaker."
Lawless did not return phone calls to his office for comment.
Womyn's Concerns, the group that organized the fair, has drawn Lawless' ire and raised eyebrows on campus before. In November they were part of a feminist march in which there were banners bearing a word for women's genitalia that is generally considered obscene.
School officials say Lawless has frequently criticized the school in the past for works of art displayed in galleries and a production of The Vagina Monologues, and has suggested that campus e-mail should be monitored.
Spanier said Tuesday the school would start screening what was put on banners that would be displayed on campus, and said other rules changes were being considered, but refused to condemn the Sex Faire or say that such things would not be allowed in the future.