Pornography, political correctness and campus free speech

January 4, 2024 5:00 am
Red Cross Sign Consists of a Pen Covered with Tape on Light Red Background Directly above View. Censorship Concept.

Republican defenders of free speech on campus are not rushing to the defense of the UW La Crosse chancellor who was fired for making pornographic videos | Photo by Mirage C. Getty Images

The news about UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow, who was fired on Dec. 27 for producing pornographic videos with his wife, dropped just in time to stir up some juicy gossip at New Year’s cocktail parties.

In a joint statement, UW System president Jay Rothman called Gow’s conduct ”abhorrent” and UW System Regent President Karen Walsh said the Regents, who voted unanimously to can Gow, were “alarmed and disgusted”  by his actions. The official statement didn’t go into detail about Gow’s “Sexy Happy Couple” enterprise, which apparently blends cooking lessons with graphic sex. 

Gow’s leadership position as chancellor, which he had held for the last 17 years (during most of which time he was producing adult videos on the side) was an at-will appointment. The Regents are within their rights to terminate him for acts “inconsistent with his role as chancellor,” as they put it. But Gow’s tenured position teaching at La Crosse is protected under an academic freedom policy designed to shelter controversial speech and heretical thinkers. Nonetheless, Rothman is seeking to boot Gow from his tenured teaching job in addition to the chancellorship. Gow has threatened to sue. 

In denouncing “free speech hypocrisy” Gow has a solid case. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the defenders of free speech in the Wisconsin Legislature, who spent the last year waving around the First Amendment and complaining about “cancel culture” on UW campuses, to rush to Gow’s defense.

Conservatives who have been making so much noise about free speech on campus lately are focused solely on rooting out “woke” ideology and somehow protecting Republican college students from being made to feel bad by their more numerous anti-racist and anti-sexist peers. Instead of defending the free exchange of ideas and civil debate, Wisconsin Republicans have moved to eliminate instruction on racism from K-12 schools as well as UW programs that recruit and support students and faculty of color.

And guess who rolled over for the right-wing crusade against diversity, equity and inclusion right before the holidays: the same Regents who rushed to cover their butts when they found out about the UW chancellor who wouldn’t cover his.

Far more concerning than Gow producing a show called “Sexy Healthy Cooking” is the UW Regents’ pusillanimous decision to cave in to Republicans’ crusade to “root out” diversity, equity and inclusion programming across the UW System, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos described it. Among the targets of that crusade are a scholarship program that helps minority tech college students in Milwaukee find jobs in the trades and a program to recruit more K-12 teachers of color in a state with an overwhelmingly white teaching workforce and the worst racial achievement gap in the nation.

Fundraising, not academic integrity, was the key issue in both the decision to fire Gow and the Board of Regents’ vote to reverse itself and let the GOP have its way with DEI programming at the UW as a condition for releasing already-promised money for the university.

The same is true in the case of another recent right-wing victory — the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay. Ostensibly, Gay was pressured to resign over accusations of plagiarism. But the claim against her, launched by a conservative website, was thin. According to The New York Times Harvard’s administration looked into the claims and then backed Gay. But her congressional testimony on campus turmoil over the war in Gaza, and what critics described as her insufficient expression of concern about antisemitism, put Gay on thin ice. Like the president of the University of Pennsylvania Elizabeth Magili, she was pushed out after she became a political liability to her institution, because of worries about the effects on admissions and fundraising.

When institutions cave to pressure to remove people because they don’t want to upset political pressure groups and donors, they compromise their integrity. They also open the door for more rounds of bullying and compromise. It’s an ominous trend. Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) who took credit for the demise of Gay and Magili, has denounced the “hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists” and vowed to continue leading a congressional investigation of Harvard and other schools.

There was a time when people on the left and right joined together to defend free speech, including speech the defenders themselves abhorred. The ACLU stood up for the right of Nazis to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, to defend “the principle that freedom of speech is a universal right no matter how offensive the message or the speaker,” as ACLU lawyer David Goldberger put it.

Back in 2018, when Gow stirred controversy by inviting a porn actress he knew to speak at a UW-La Crosse forum that included other perspectives on sex work and trafficking, Regent Bob Atwell wrote in an oped for the La Crosse Tribune that “pornography is a terrible hill on which to plant the flag of free expression.” But pornography has been central to many historic First Amendment battles in the U.S.

In the 1990s, the Thomas Jefferson Center at the University of Virginia sponsored debates between pornographer Larry Flynt and evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell after Falwell lost a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case against Flynt for publishing an obscene cartoon of Falwell in Hustler magazine. That landmark case established that parodies of public figures are protected by the First Amendment, even if they are intended to hurt the target’s feelings. The cartoon depicted Falwell as an incestuous drunk who had sex with his mother in an outhouse. It was pretty gross. Abhorrent, even.

In an 8-0 decision, the Court held that the emotional distress Falwell suffered did not override Hustler’s First Amendment right to publish the cartoon.

Falwell, while he continued to argue his side of the case in those Thomas Jefferson Center debates, was apparently not so emotionally wounded that he couldn’t form an affable partnership with his tormenter.

That’s a good model for faint-hearted university administrators and conservative snowflakes on campus alike. We can all handle hearing opinions we disagree with. We can live among people who say things we don’t like and even learn from the experience. The free exchange of ideas is the foundation of university education and of American democracy. Instead of throwing in with the censors on either side, we need to foster a more open, heterodox society.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.