The porn star banned from Pasadena

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Last week, porn star James Deen spoke to a class at Pasadena City College, but administrators banned a planned public event with Deen. In a press release misleadingly titled, “PCC Instructor Agrees To Cancel Public Event,” the PCC administration claimed, “Pasadena City College administrators met with instructor Hugo Schwyzer today and came to agreement to move an unauthorized scheduled public event that featured a male actor in the pornography industry. There will be no public event at PCC on Feb. 27.” On his blog, Schwyzer noted that this was not true, “I want to make clear that there were no negotiations; I was simply told that the public event was off. This was a decision unilaterally imposed rather than negotiated.”

Nor is it true that the event was “unauthorized.” In fact, the public event was approved by the PCC administration, although the PCC press release claims otherwise: “neither the instructor nor the sponsors of the event had followed the proper procedure to obtain a facilities use permit that is required of all public events.”

Schwyzer posted a picture of his form, which was signed by a Student Affairs Advisor, and none of the boxes for additional forms required were checked. According to the Office of Student Affairs handbook, this means that the activity is approved: “The form is considered approved when it has the signature of the Student Affairs Advisor (on-campus events)….” This is the same form that Schwyzer and other professors have used for speakers many times before.

Searching the PCC website for the term “facilities use permit,” the only reference I could find was this press release. Further searching on the website revealed no signs of any such regulations. According to spokesperson Juan Gutierrez, the problem was that a speaker contract was omitted, which is required even though Deen wasn’t being paid. But nothing in the PCC Events Planning Guide says that contracts for speakers are necessary.

While I couldn’t actually find any PCC regulations requiring contracts for unpaid speakers, the rule itself is unconstitutional. The administration can’t ban all speakers who lack a contract signed in advance. The government can’t compel signing a contract as a condition of free speech.

But if there was a mistake in approving this event, the mistake was that of the administration, not Schwyzer. Of course, even if Schwyzer had made a mistake, the obligation of any college administrator is to do everything possible to ensure that an event can occur (such as by getting a contract signed, if that was really the reason for the ban), and never to seek to ban it. PCC administrators utterly failed to do that. Instead, they appear to have invented any possible excuse to ban the public event. Gutierrez even told me that parking concerns were a legitimate reason for halting the event: “parking is a big issue on our campus.” While PCC officials said they were willing to reschedule the event, it’s always difficult to move a planned speaker with a busy porn-making schedule.

There’s a certain irony here: while the event was cancelled for failing to follow the correct procedures (even though it did), PCC doesn’t actually have any clear procedures for cancelling events. There are no policies in the policy section, no written guidelines for when an event can be banned. The administration effectively demands that everyone else get every detail right in every piece of paperwork, but when it comes to their own actions, they don’t have any clear rules to follow.

But “safety” was the primary buzzword invoked for censorship at PCC. According to the administration’s press release, “The college’s concern is to schedule all public events according to procedures so we can insure public safety and security.” But there were no reported threats of violence. The school told the New York Daily News that it had received just four telephone complaints in the hours before Deen spoke to the students. Yet according to Gutierrez, there were absolutely no threats of violence of any kind.

Schwyzer reported, “Gail Cooper, the college’s legal adviser, told me that she had received word that there might be up to ’100 protestors ready to march’ on the event, and that the college had decided they lacked the resources to prevent disruption.” The administration’s misguided fear of a protest never materialized. But what if it had? Will the PCC administration simply ban all events where someone holds a protest?

This is the famous Heckler’s Veto—the notion that a critic can be allowed to silence an event by the threat of protest. The Heckler’s Veto is utterly anathema to freedom of speech and academic freedom, and no college can ever cancel an event based on this justification. But in this case, we should call it the Imaginary Heckler’s Veto, since there was literally no protest. It’s ridiculous to imagine that even if PCC needed to send a security guard to protect a porn star’s speech, it lacked the capability to do so for an event cancelled more than a day in advance. If the PCC administration had the time and resources to ban the event, they certain had the time and resources to deal with any security concerns.

Gutierrez said, “the safety of our students is paramount” and added, “if we’re going to err it’s on the side of safety.” This is the ugly specter of risk management overriding everything else on a college campus. After all, universities might theoretically be safer if all potentially controversial speakers and classes were completely banned from campus. But they would no longer be universities. Raising safety fears is always a dubious explanation for censorship, but doing so when there are no reasonable safety fears at all is even more alarming.

Gutierrez claims that there’s no problem because “the speaker got to speak.” But the point is that not all of the audience got to listen. By this standard, allowing speakers to sit in a closet and talk to themselves meets the requirements of free speech, even if you ban everyone from hearing them.

In the PCC press release, Dr. Robert Bell, assistant superintendent of Academic and Student Affairs, is quoted as saying, “We support the instructor’s academic freedom within the classroom.” Obviously, academic freedom goes far beyond the classroom, as PCC’s own clearly stated Academic Freedom policy states: “academic freedom is a right enjoyed by all members of the Pasadena City College community: faculty (tenured, non-tenured, and adjunct), students, classified and administrative staff, and Trustees. Academic Freedom is defined as the freedom to teach and learn in an atmosphere of free inquiry and expression.”

PCC has no policies stating that it will cancel events that fail to meet some exacting standard of bureaucratic paperwork. But it does have a clear policy demanding an atmosphere of free inquiry, one that the administration violating by banning the public event.

Clearly, the cancellation of a public event is a major decision, and it should never be done except in the most extreme circumstances where immediate safety is at risk. Yet PCC officials seem unaware that they made an enormous mistake in banning the Deen speech, and apparently have no plans to fix the problems that caused this.

PCC needs to have a clearer policy protecting freedom of speech on campus, and prohibiting the administration from banning events except in dire circumstances. It needs to create a system of voluntary reporting of major events that might require assistance due to their size or potential protests. And it needs to have a plan for dealing with protests and threats without ever resorting to censorship again. Unless the PCC administration admits its mistakes, and fixes these problems, one has to conclude that their goal is to discourage controversial events on campus.

Schwyzer tried to put a positive spin on the event, but concluded that he was “feeling lucky to have tenure.” This is the chilling effect that censorship has, even if it might be done for bureaucratic reasons rather than to suppress controversial speech. Faculty and students must now assume that organizing events that create headlines will present a danger of cancellation and retaliation.

James Deen said about the controversy, “This course isn’t mandatory for anyone, and my talk isn’t mandatory. If you are not interested, you have the right not to attend. That’s the beauty of America.” It’s a sad day when a porn star understands academic freedom better than the administrators running a college.

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