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Censoring Sexuality

News & Features | April 9, 2013

Newspaper pages sprinkled with images of condoms and sex toys were abruptly swiped from their shelves. Students distributing condoms to their peers received menacing letters from their school’s administration. College campuses are known for their intellectual discourse so when freedom of expression is limited in the college setting, it’s nearly guaranteed to make headlines. This censorship has been a recent issue both close to home and far away, as Boston College (BC) and Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) each intervened in issues of free expression in the past few weeks.

At Boston College, members of the student group “BC Students for Sexual Health” (BCSSH) were rebuked for handing out condoms to members of the student body. BC’s student handbook prohibits sexual activity between unmarried couples, and the college threatened to take disciplinary action if the group’s actions continued.

BC’s student newspaper, The Heights, reported that the condom distribution was taking place in rooms labeled “Safe Sites,” and listed the services provided there: “access to free sexual health resources, including male and female condoms, dental dams, and lubricant, as well as sexual health pamphlets.”

BCSSH isn’t a registered student organization—they’re supported by groups such as the Great American Condom Campaign and Planned Parenthood—but BC’s administration still insisted that the students were in violation of Jesuit and Catholic values, and could face punishment.

The Boston Globe reported that BC’s Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life both signed a statement that read: “while we understand that you may not be intentionally violating university policy, we do need to advise you that should we receive any reports that you are, in fact, distributing condoms on campus, the matter would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action by the university.”

In the same Globe story, the chairwoman of BCSSH states her position quite succinctly: “Students shouldn’t have to choose between holistic health care and a world class institution.”

Only a few days before this, a community college in New Mexico suspended The CNM Chronicle for their publication of a 12-page sex-themed issue. A curt statement from the school’s administration dubbed the content “offensive and not appropriate for the educational mission of CNM,” while adding that the school was planning to “re-evaluate how students can be trained, educated, and supervised in operating a widely disseminated student publication.” CNM administrators pulled some issues of the newspaper off their racks.

The sex-themed issue of the Chronicle covered topics spanning from sexual orientation to abstinence, sex positions, and a list of sexual resources. After the announcement of the suspension, The Daily Lobo, the student newspaper at University of New Mexico, announced it would cease publication “in solidarity” with the Chronicle.

Neither of these issues ended so quietly. BCSSH reached out to Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, for assistance with their case. Wunsch asserted that BC students’ rights were being violated, and the Globe reported that the ACLU chapter has vowed to take legal action against Boston College.

On the other end of this debate, Catholic universities across the nation have risen up in support of BC’s administration. Representatives from Georgetown, Providence College, Notre Dame, and others have offered words of corroboration with Boston College’s decision. A meeting between the school’s administration and the student group is set to take place in the coming weeks.

At CNM, the outcome was much different. Very shortly after the suspension was announced, the school reinstated the paper. The administration offered a convoluted explanation, claiming that the college had been concerned about the quotation of a high school student. The staff of the Chronicle confirmed that the student was quoted on the issue of abstinence, and her parents had granted permission. The Associated Press quoted the Chronicle’s editor, Jyllian Roach, saying that the sex issue was meant to be educational. She added: “We knew that some people were going to be uncomfortable. But we never expected CNM to do something like this.”

Neither of the conflicts has been totally resolved, and it’s likely that similar conflicts will arise elsewhere as these two ordeals work toward eventual resolution.  What seems clear, however, is that when sex enters the campus conversation, freedom of speech is no longer guaranteed.