A University of Montana law professor has taken her concerns about a weekly sex column in the student-run newspaper, the Montana Kaimin, to top school administrators.
Professor Kristen Juras wrote a letter last week to UM President George Dennison and School of Journalism Dean Peggy Kuhr, requesting that they meet with the Kaimin editorial staff to "ask them to reconsider their publication of this column."
And, Juras said she'll take her complaints about student Bess Davis' "Bess Sex Column" all the way to state higher education officials if necessary.
"Freedom of speech is not absolute," Juras said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "There is accountability and responsibility. (The Kaimin is) funded by taxpayer dollars and tuition fees for an educational purpose, and they have to stay within that purpose."
Another UM law professor, Rob Natelson, recently blogged about the issue under the headline "State-funded porn."
Kaimin editor Bill Oram, however, defended the newspaper's decision to publish a sex column and has no intention of pulling the feature from the newspaper, or restricting its content.
While Oram said he is open to talking about policies, he said he'd be concerned if the Kaimin's content were left to the discretion of a board that included people not trained as journalists.
"I see why some people take offense to the column," which deals with sex and relationships, "but I personally do not," he said.
Besides, Oram said, "We have an audience that cares a great deal about the issue of sex."
But Juras finds the column's content inappropriate, especially in a general circulation newspaper "funded in large by student fees and taxpayer money."
Her law school colleague Natelson wrote March 5 in the Electric City blog, "No doubt there are people out there who will explain to me why distributing porn among unmarried post-pubescents is such a critical function of government that people should be forced to pay for it."
The Kaimin, which published a story Wednesday about the controversy, is funded primarily through advertising revenue, said Kaimin business manager Joe Licitra. About 35 percent of the newspaper's total operating revenue comes from student fees.
Despite the recent buzz about the sex column, Oram had received only a handful of complaints prior to Wednesday.
Dennison's office received three complaints, and UM legal counsel David Aronofsky said his office received two.
Dennison said he has not yet read the column, but imagines he'll look at it soon. This is a situation where the students are learning how their decisions affect others, he said.
"I don't want to get involved in a situation of censorship," Dennison said. "I'd rather be involved in a discussion of taste and judgment."
Oram said most of the complaints to the Kaimin came from faculty. He described the critics as few, but vocal.
"I don't know how controversial it's been," he said. "We clearly label it as a sex column. Having a sex column is a small part of what we do here and you don't have to read it."
The column gives tips on everything from cheap, stay-in dates to new sexual positions. In fact, Davis, a 21-year-old senior in journalism, describes the column as "vanilla" compared to other sex columns published nationally and on other college campuses.
"I'm shocked this is such an issue," said Davis, who said she is confused and "slightly annoyed" by all the fuss. Many student newspapers print more risqué sex columns, she said.
Carol Van Valkenburg, chairwoman of the print journalism department, has been the faculty adviser to the Kaimin for more than 25 years. In that time, there's never been a sex column published in the newspaper, she said.
That's one reason Davis wanted to write one. The Kaimin was behind the times, she said. Plus, "it's something I'm into, like most people. But I'm more honest about it."
Despite the criticism to the column, Davis promises to continue writing about sex with the same vigor she has all semester.
"I can't allow public opinion to sway the way I write," she said.
Juras said she is not against a sex column in the Kaimin. She understands the students' First Amendment rights provided under the U.S. Constitution and would welcome a column that is about healthy sexuality. However, if the Kaimin is a training ground for journalists, Juras questions the educational value of Davis' column.
"Taking limited resources and writing such inappropriate, unimportant, unprofessional content, I don't know how they came to that decision, and we need to train journalists to come to good decisions."
Helena attorney Mike Meloy specializes in First Amendment issues and considers Juras' request to school administrators a slippery slope.
The editor has the authority to dictate the content in the newspaper, he said.
"It's very, very difficult to draft a rule that governs content that passes constitutional muster," Meloy said.
That's especially true of anything dealing with obscenity, he said. Nothing in Davis' column appears obscene from a legal perspective, he said.
"It may be tasteless to a broad section of Montanans, but I doubt very seriously it offends the sensibility of students," Meloy said.
Reactions from students on campus to the sex column vary.
For Sara Harvey, a junior in social work, reading Davis' column is "guilty pleasure." She relates to some of the columns and finds them humorous.
"I thought it was funny," said the 21-year-old. "(Sex) shouldn't be taboo or something that's censored. It's a university, for God's sake."
On the other hand, Daniel Viehland, 19, considers sex a spiritual act. So while he thinks a sex column is worthwhile for a student newspaper, he says this particular column "focuses on sex in the lowest-common-denominator way. Sex is an act of making love and it doesn't treat it as such."
Meanwhile, Davis is mulling over possible topics for this Friday's column. She's toyed with the idea of oral sex, but she's yet to find an angle.
"They need to have a point or it is really just pornography," she said.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.