Comptroller overreaches with UT Sex Week report

Johnson City Press • Feb 22, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Another case of a state agency meddling in policy decisions boiled out of Nashville this week.

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office issued an audit report of the annual Sex Week event at the University of Tennessee. State legislators have zeroed in on the event since its inception in 2013, focusing their ire on content they consider too salacious for a state university campus.

Perhaps it was — we’re not making a judgment call on the content here. But that’s a subjective concern to be hashed out politically and within the free speech debates of the campus, not by bureaucrats.

In 2014, the Tennessee Legislature went as far as to officially label UT’s Sex Week “despicable” in joint resolution 626, which allows students to opt in or opt out of fees that fund student programming. In 2016, it also approved Public Chapter 1066, prohibiting the use of state funds to fund or support Sex Week, a measure that continues to be of debate regarding whether the use of state facilities constitutes state funding.

A similar event took root here in Johnson City at East Tennessee State University in 2015 and predictably also raised eyebrows in the Legislature. The sponsoring organization changed the name from “Sex Week” to “Sexual Health Week” in 2017 in a compromise with university administrators taking heat from Nashville.

But the students involved in Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT) have stuck to their guns, and Sex Week continues on the UT campus.

The majority of the Comptroller’s report focuses on UT’s financial relationship with SEAT, as one would expect from the agency tasked with “ensuring financial integrity in regards to a governmental entity’s financial position and results of operations, compliance with applicable statutes, grant agreements, rules and regulations, and/or its record of efficiency and effectiveness.”

Where the Comptroller’s office wades into trouble, though, is in its conclusion that SEAT has been “unwilling to compromise with university administrators who have asked it annually to ‘tone it down’ and consider the impact of its language choices.”

Regardless of the history involved, the finding is subjective by evaluating just how “unwilling” the organization has been, whether the content of Sex Week meets anyone’s standard of tone and what “language choices” are involved.

The finding wades even deeper into the subjective mud in the supporting narrative, noting that the student organization leased a billboard on Interstate 40 to advertise Sex Week and that SEAT had also been critical of the university administration and the legislature on social media. The report specifically called out SEAT for the statement, “Tennessee State Legislature . . . [please] stop trying to censor student run and student funded programming.”

Last time we checked, SEAT’s members continue to have free speech rights, and their efforts to criticize elected and appointed officials are not subject to approval from a government analyst. Clearly, the Comptroller considers the exercise of free speech an example of an “unwillingness” to play ball. The report even cited ETSU as an example of dutiful compliance in changing the event’s name.

Earlier this year, State Rep. Micah Van Huss wrote his fellow members of the Tennessee House of Representatives accusing an unnamed state judicial branch employee of offering to help kill “bad” bills by inflating the cost estimates. As we stated at the time, if indeed bureaucrats are trying to influence Legislative matters with misleading or false information, they are crossing the line.

The same applies here. The Comptroller’s office has no business making subjective findings, especially when it involves the exercise of free speech.

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