HELENA – A sex column in the University of Montana newspaper is under attack by a law professor who says the cloak of press freedom is being used to defend writing that is “embarrassingly unprofessional” and reflects poorly on the university and its faculty.
Assistant Professor Kristen Juras wants the Montana Kaimin to reconsider its publication of the weekly column “Bess Sex,” in which journalism student Bess Davis has covered topics such as sexual positions, “cheap and kinky” gifts for Valentine’s Day and “entertaining at home during the re-sex-ssion.”
Kaimin Editor Bill Oram said Thursday that he stands behind the column, which began appearing in the paper this winter.
Davis said she still has a lot to write about sex before she graduates from UM in May.
Juras, who has a son enrolled at Montana and advises the student group Christian Legal Society, said she could support a sex column if it covered topics such as health matters related to sexual activity. She said she will talk to the university publications board about a need for “accountability and guidelines” at the Kaimin.
Newspaper faculty adviser Carol Van Valkenburg of the UM journalism school said the Kaimin is independent editorially.
“It is their (students’) newspaper, not the university’s, not the journalism school’s, but theirs,” said Van Valkenburg, who meets weekly with the Kaimin staff and discusses its performance.
“They are welcome to take my advice or leave it, and they often leave it, which is fine,” she said.
Oram, a member of the publications board, wrote in an editorial Thursday that freedom of expression is central in Juras’s argument. People who do not like the column should ignore it, he said.
“We dispute the idea that the column is the equivalent of a journalistic STD” (sexually transmitted disease), wrote Oram, who has met with Juras about her concerns.
In a phone interview, he said Davis’s column is tame compared to what is written about sex in a number of college newspapers around the country.
“Our column is Disneyland and other college columns are the Playboy mansion,” he said, adding the Kaimin “is not talking about sex because we can. It’s because we think we have something to offer.”
Frank LaMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said it is common for a college newspaper “to carry a sex column or a romantic advice column that gets a little racy.” Most universities understand that under the Constitution, “taste is not a permissible ground to censor a newspaper,” LaMonte said. Attempts to control newspaper content would be more likely to harm a university’s image that would a sex column, he added.
“I don’t think journalists can stand behind freedom of speech every time someone objects to one of their columns,” said Juras, who described herself as an advocate of free speech.
Juras questions the qualifications of Davis, who has been a Kaimin copy editor and was an online editing intern at The Indianapolis Star last summer. Some schooling in fields such as human behavior or psychology would be desirable in a sex columnist, Juras said.
“It’s a student paper and we’re student columnists,” Davis said. “The point of these columns is to get an everyday person’s look at these topics, not an expert’s. I’m just as qualified as any sexually active college student.”
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