Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 11, 2010.
So let's get this straight.
University of Iowa officials were unaware that the university's student-run theater, the Bijou, was planning to show a 1970s "erotic, camp classic" titled "Disco Dolls in Hot Skin" this weekend. In fact, they seemed to be unaware that the Bijou had been showing a porno once a year to well-attended audiences of people 18 and older.
But when a Press-Citizen reporter called to ask about the tradition and the First Amendment issues raised by showing pornos in student-run theaters, UI officials suddenly decided to overturn that tradition and declare that the Bijou cannot show the film.
Tom Rocklin, interim vice president for student services, sent out a notice Tuesday afternoon stating that after he learned about the film earlier in the day, he ordered the Bijou directors to cancel their plans.
"It is clearly not in the public interest for a public facility at a public institution to be showing a film of this nature. If showing the film were essential to an educational objective, the situation would be different. The intent in this case was to provide entertainment," Rocklin said in an e-mail.
But it's not clear if showing the film would violate any state, county or university rules. And if it does violate any of those rules, then the Bijou has been out of compliance for decades for screening such erotic, camp classics.
Before Rocklin sent his message, Evan Meaney, the executive director of the Bijou, told the Press-Citizen that he expected UI administrators to support "Disco Dolls" as they had in the past. After all, he said, the Bijou previously never had to get films pre-approved.
Unfortunately for Meaney, the political climate of the state has changed in the past few years. With UI administrators having received a lot of bad PR from a series of bad decisions, the university is particularly aware of how negatively a headline such as "Student-run theater shows pornos annually" would be received, criticized and denounced by lawmakers from other parts of the state.
While there are many reasons to prohibit a student-run theater from showing pornos for mere entertainment -- such as the role pornography plays in continuing sexism and the subjugation of women -- UI officials seem to have made this quick decision essentially to avoid another storm of negative PR.
In so doing, however, they are opening up a similarly sized storm of negative PR as the university, for the first time in recent memory, is banning a film that the Bijou already had been working to bring to campus. The decision now raises questions about whether the university is going to set standards for the level of violence, gore of obscene dialogue that the can be included in the films the Bijou brings to campus.
As Meaney said hours before the film was canceled, "Pornography tests the limits of the First Amendment and artistic expression. I am not going to say this film is a functioning form of art, but nudity and sexuality has always tested the limits of what people think is proper."