Penn State Sex Faire Puts Lawmakers on the Spot

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - Penn State University's recent 'Sex Faire,' which featured "orgasm bingo," anatomically correct gingerbread cookies, and a "Tent of Consent," has put free speech issues on a collision course with community standards of decency. One state legislator says the school's legendary football team may be influencing lawmakers' apparent tolerance for what many consider to be an indecent event.

Pennsylvania Rep. John Lawless (R-Montgomery Co.), who witnessed first-hand the sexually-explicit "faire," wants the state to cut funding for the university. But Lawless said he doubts his fellow lawmakers will go along with the plan, because, he says, football is the first thing that comes to mind when legislators think about Penn State University.

The Feb. 3 "Sex Faire," which attracted several hundred Penn State students, was organized and funded by what's described as a feminist student group. The question for lawmakers is whether university officials should have stopped it from taking place on campus property.

"Legislators get football seats at the press box given to them," Lawless said. "Penn State has several lobbyists. They're [state legislators] very well greased up here." Lawless said Penn State University is "the only institution, department, the state of Pennsylvania that I know of that we give $350 million a year to and they don't have to tell us how they spend a dime.

"There is not a legislator in Pennsylvania who is accountable to his or her constituents for the money that is given to Penn State. That is how politically strong they are, and why are they strong? Because they have a football team," said Lawless.

Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware Co.) said legislators do receive tickets to some football games.

"Every fall, there is a series of home games legislators are invited to. You don't get tickets per se, but there is a press box with that, and you're offered seating in there. There's no price on those tickets...Typically, there's a brunch beforehand where members of the Penn State administration promote the school.

"I guess it's part of their lobbying program, their government relations program where they basically bring in groups of legislators and they promote the school and use the football game as an inducement to give their pitch to legislators about various programs they're working on," said Vitali.

At a recent committee hearing in Harrisburg, where state lawmakers discussed $250 million in proposed state funding for the school, state lawmakers questioned Penn State University President Graham B. Spanier about whether he thought the Sex Faire was wrong. To which Spanier replied, 'Depends on what you mean by the word wrong', according to Lawless.

Spanier's answer was "very Clintonesque," Lawless said.

But Rep. Sam Rohrer said this isn't about legislators being swayed by the politics of college football.

"I think that what you have is that the reluctance to impose any kind of penalty - be it financial or otherwise - on...a significant constituency." Rohrer added, "I think it's more of the inability to claim moral courage in the face of conflict than it is to be relegated to a ticket"l [to a football game].

"What this incident with Penn State indicates is that it's not just the problem with Penn State. It's pervasive throughout American colleges. It just so happens that they got caught...And either you say that this is immoral and it is wrong, and if it is, then you're forced to do something about it. When you say it is not wrong, then you're basically embracing it. Well nobody wants to do that either, and so what you have is the same old thing, both feet planted firmly on either side of the line," said Rohrer.

Rep. Jere L. Strittmatter (R-Lancaster Co.) said he doesn't believe "public relations by a university with football enters into decision-making at all."

"I believe it [the Sex Faire] was wrong. I believe that the administration should have recognized that it was wrong and moved to stop it," said Strittmatter.

Gov. Tom Ridge recently sent a letter to Spanier, urging him to make sure that student-run events at Penn State strive for balance - free speech on the one hand, respect for community standards on the other hand.

Spanier told the committee that although that balance was "a difficult line to walk," the university is considering policy changes to avoid future controversies.