By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
The Sex Workers Art Show (SWAS), which caused quite a commotion at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University in recent years, is now causing a stir in the General Assembly. Delegate Brenda Pogge aims to ensure that the SWAS and other purportedly “obscene” performances aren’t allowed on Virginia campuses again.
(By the way, the SWAS, which tells the behind the scenes story of the individuals involved in the sex industry, is not obscene, even by the most puritanical of standards. It’s the subject matter that makes legislators and college administrators nervous.)
Under current Virginia law, libraries, museums, theaters and institutions of higher education that are supported by public dollars are exempt from Virginia’s obscenity statute. This is a pretty standard practice since anything that has any artistic, scientific or socially redeeming value cannot, by definition, be obscene. HB 1296, however, would require that the governing bodies of the state’s public universities and colleges give permission before allowing the use of their facilities or funds for anything they deem to be obscene.
Attending a college or university is often the first time young adults are living on their own, making their own decisions and having to be truly responsible for their actions. College is often the place for students to explore new experiences, hear different points of view, and challenge their own beliefs. Why not allow students to learn from their experiences and make up their own minds about what constitutes obscenity?
Under this legislation, students who are showing paintings, putting on performances, or publishing poetry that is sexually explicit in any way—like simple nudity?—will be compelled to go to the board of visitors to make sure they are not violating the law. I can’t imagine a more effective way of limiting creativity and stifling student expression.
Not only is this an issue of censorship for students, but if passed, the law also turns university governing boards into Big Brother and gives them a whole new – and potentially burdensome – function of having to review everything from library books to theater performances before they are allowed on campuses. At the very least, that’s a waste of their time.
Rather than impose an outright prohibition on controversial materials and risk infringements on the First Amendment, wouldn’t it be wiser to use the opportunities afforded by the Sex Workers Art Show and similar kinds of artistic expression as teaching moments for students? After all, these are institutions of higher learning, aren’t they?
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