Notes & Comments November 2002
Academic freedom for me but not for thee
On the sexual circus of pornstar/activist Annie Sprinkle.
How quickly time passes! It seems only yesterday that we were reporting in this space on Annie Sprinkle’s performance at The Kitchen, the supertrendy performance venue in downtown Manhattan. In fact, it was more than a decade ago, in the winter of 1990, that Miss Sprinkle, the former prostitute and porn star reborn as a “feminist porn activist,” came to entertain and enlighten the hip multitudes that congregate at places like The Kitchen. What captured our interest back then was not so much the particulars of this sexual entrepreneur’s performance—pornographic exhibitionism masquerading as art had already become a bit of a yawn—but the fact that it was paid for in part by … well, by all of us, courtesy of the largess of the National Endowment for the Arts. Back then the NEA was busy handing out cash for all sorts of nasty stuff, the more degrading the better. That policy garnered lots of headlines for the government agency. It also precipitated its eventual marginalization. But in 1990 there was still a frisson to be had from taxpayer-funded sponsorship of smut. It was this aspect of the evening that excited Annie Sprinkle (yes, it’s a nom de guerre: her real name is Ellen Steinberg). At one point, flouncing about almost naked, she invited members of the audience to come up to the stage to photograph her in any pose they liked. “Usually I get a lot of money for this,” she explained. “But tonight it’s government funded.”
How long ago it seems. But Annie Sprinkle has not gone away. She has become part of the women’s studies circus act touring college campuses under the banner of feminism and sexual freedom. One recent stop for Miss Sprinkle was at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Like many private liberal arts colleges these days, Hamilton hands parents a bill in excess of $30,000 per year. What do they get for that considerable sum? One thing they get is organizations like the Womyn’s Center (note the “y”), which used a few thousand dollars from college coffers to bring Annie Sprinkle to campus. Part of Miss Sprinkle’s performance was running a “workshop” on “Super Sex Technology.” (The British novelist Kingsley Amis once observed that much of what had gone wrong with the twentieth century could be summed up in the word “workshop”: and how!) Writing in the Utica Observer-Dispatch, Robert L. Paquette, a professor of history at Hamilton, noted that Miss Sprinkle’s workshop involved “educating students and faculty on how better to pleasure themselves.” And not only college students. We’re told that the audience for that particular educational effort included some local high school students as well as members of the Hamilton College community: how’s that for town-gown relations?
Professor Paquette, who conjectured that he may be Hamilton’s only “out-of-closet conservative” (among a faculty of nearly two hundred), labored hard to get Annie Sprinkle’s performance at Hamilton cancelled. He failed, of course. We say “of course” because the college administration, confronted with such a demand, instantly began bleating about the First Amendment and academic freedom. On liberals, those shibboleths act as a potent moral sedative, producing silence, lamb-like acquiescence, and lock-step conformity.
It needn’t be that way. As Rochelle Gurstein pointed out in her book The Repeal of Reticence (1996), until the 1950s the First Amendment was explicitly excluded by the courts as a defense for trafficking in obscene materials. Are we wiser now? Liberals celebrate the introduction of First Amendment protection for obscenity as a victory for progress and freedom; “it is better understood,” Gurstein observed, “as a marker of the disappearance of shared ideas about what constitutes obscenity and what constitutes art.”
Something similar might be said about academic freedom. The sociologist Edward Shils summed up the salient point with his customary incisiveness in The American Scholar in the mid-1980s. Academic freedom, he noted, is not a universal human right. On the contrary, it is a “qualified right,” a “privilege” extended to people fulfilling a certain role in exchange for the performance of certain duties. Essentially, Shils wrote, academic freedom “is the freedom to seek and transmit the truth.” It does not, he pointedly added, “extend to the conduct of political propaganda in teaching.”
We remind readers of these distinctions partly in order to suggest that invocation of the First Amendment and academic freedom does not purchase a blanket immunity from moral censure. Academic freedom is the precious freedom to pursue the truth; it is not a license to engage in moral subversion. There is no reason that parents, for example, need countenance the corruption of their sons and daughters because some college dean or women’s studies professor claims the prerogative of academic freedom.
Still, a favorite strategy of intimidation among those whose goal is moral revolution has been to invoke the protection of the First Amendment and the privilege of academic freedom. It is worth noting, however, that those freedoms are often applied selectively. The basic formula is this: “Academic freedom for me, but not for thee—at least not if you have the temerity to disagree with my politically correct opinions.”
Hamilton College provided an instructive illustration of this procedure at work. Robert Paquette attempts to have Miss Sprinkle’s performance cancelled but is told that doing so would be a violation of the First Amendment and academic freedom. He then arranges for the college’s audio-visual department to tape Miss Sprinkle’s performance, having previously obtained her signature on a waiver that, among other things, authorized “unrestricted access” to and copying of the tape. David Paris, the dean of the faculty at Hamilton, learns of the tape and intercepts it. In response to a request from Professor Paquette, Dean Paris responds that he will release the tape, but only if it is agreed that it will not be copied or made publicly available. But why? Doesn’t Professor Paquette enjoy the same freedoms that the Womyn’s Center and Annie Sprinkle enjoy? Or perhaps Dean Paris believes that Professor Paquette’s freedom of expression is less important than theirs?
Well, we are told that the dean finally caved in, doubtless because he feared legal action. But his initial effort to suppress the tape offers a good lesson in how our politically correct academic commissars understand free speech. They regard it as a privilege reserved largely for those who are on the right—which means the Left—side of any debate. They do not say this, of course. They merely confiscate your tape if you happen to be on the “unenlightened” side.
David Paris was probably worried that a tape of Annie Sprinkle’s sex tips would not be good publicity for Hamilton College. Not an irrational worry, that. But if he was willing to provide a college imprimatur for Annie Sprinkle’s performance, why should he object if one of his faculty seeks to make Miss Sprinkle’s message more widely known? We suspect that the college’s trustees and alumni, to say nothing of parents whose children are being educated at Hamilton, would be most interested in seeing what sort of extracurricular activity the college provides. Probably, parents in the surrounding community would be interested, too, since apparently their high-school-aged children are allowed to participate in such events. We are told that Annie Sprinkle’s fee and travel expenses amounted to some $3000. We suggest that the college make an equal sum available to Professor Paquette in order that he might copy and distribute the tape of her performance. That would be a genuinely “cutting-edge” gesture. It would also indicate that Hamilton College was serious about its commitment to free speech.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 3, on page 1
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