CMU Chills Student Speech


Like most members of the CMU campus community, I received an “Official Communication” on Friday night about TBA (email is below). TBA is a 25-year CMU tradition where the AB Films Committee, which shows 4 films a week every week of the year, shows pornography for one of those nights in week before finals. AB Films normally shows popular movies like Wall-E, The Dark Knight or Transformers on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

To get into a TBA a student must

  1. Pay $1
  2. Prove they are over 18 with valid ID
  3. Have time to watch a movie.

Sometimes we get false bad press (TBA is not paid for with student money, nor does McConomy fit “thousands”) and sometimes we get good press (and more good press) for being more progressive than our sister universities. I have been to 3 TBAs, counting last tonight’s showing of “The New Devil in Miss Jones“, and all are community comedy events more than anything else. I always go with my feminist friends, and we spend the movie sniping at the portrayal of women, the terrible acting and film-making–and the CS students code in the back of the hall and shout out odd movie references. It is light-hearted, controversial, and the most talkative I have seen most people on this campus.

I am not sure what my social position is on pornography; however my political and legal view is that restriction of speech because it causes “offense or discomfort”, or for the sake of “appropriateness” is impermissible (see email below). Especially when those subjective standards are inconsistently applied. For example, this is the first Official Communication condemning TBA I have received in the 2 years I have been at CMU. Perhaps it was that neither Pirates II nor Porn Wars (with its “Jodi Warriors”) generated much publicity at the time they were shown in McConomy.

Here is an article about the Official Communication which names some names; I have to no interest doing this here. Regardless of why the email was sent, it had a phrase which I could not abide: “the university strongly objects to showing such films.” As a member of this university who does not object to showing such films, I was offended that my opinion would be disregarded for a blanket apology to unnamed people who suffered “offense or discomfort.”

I spent some time this weekend writing response letters to the email. I knew I did not just want to send an email, nor did I want to send something alone (see my post on writing letter to Senators for why I made these choices). I finally decided my strongest argument would address whether “the university” as a whole condemns TBA.

To this end, I wrote a simple statement of support for TBA (below) and printed up some pages with numbers for signatures. Before heading out, I posted a link to the protest letter on the CS major IRC channel (at the suggestion of a friend), and got a good reception there. I told them I would be standing outside of TBA wearing a tie-dyed dress and holding a folder and pens. Several people throughout the night recognized me from this description.

I attended the 8pm showing, and got nearly everyone in the room to sign. Then I caught a lot of the people coming into the 10pm showing, and had the permission of the student organizers to pass around the letter and sheets of paper during the show.  I caught everyone in line for the 12pm showing and got home. I now have about 190 signatures in support of TBA–I will try to 10 more to make an even 200. Overall, I think I only had a dozen or so people decline to sign. The smallness of this number makes a lot of sense since I was recruiting from people who had already paid to see TBA.

I plan to reprint my letter of support on nice paper (complete with formal headings with addresses and such) and mail it to the Dean with the signatures enclosed. I don’t usually go in for direct advocacy, but I thought it would be the most effective for the impact I want to have.

I hope to help the Dean balance the views of students against TBA with students for TBA.

PS: “chilling effect” is a term of art in first amendment law. It means censorship by other means–usually financial, social or political pressure to cease the unsupported communication, stopping short of outright censorship. For example, when advertisers in the 50s shied away from Walter Cronkite because he was too liberal and he had to fight to keep his show, that was a “chilling effect”. Another example is cease and desist letters from corporations which hold no legal power but scare bloggers into discontinuing their commentary.

My letter in response to the Official Communication on TBA.

Dear Dean XXX,

I support the Activities Board Films Committee’s decision to show TBA this semester (and every semester). Your statement, “the university strongly objects to showing such films”, does not honor my views as a member of this community.

The lack of financial, social and political support for TBA from the administration amounts to a chilling effect on student speech. In CMU’s polyphony of morality it is disappointing to read that “the university” has a single opinion on the appropriateness of TBA.

I may not like pornography, but I am ashamed that we as a community are attempting to chill the speech of the Activities Board Films Committee.

Thank you for your time,


Jessica Dickinson Goodman

Text of offending email:

To Faculty, Students & Staff:

As you may be aware, the Activities Board Films Committee, a recognized student organization on campus, has chosen in some semesters to screen an X-rated film, which students may elect to attend only if they are 18 years or older.  Such an event has been scheduled for this semester.

The AB-Films staff advisor has engaged in ongoing conversation with the group, as in past years, strongly encouraging them to re-consider the appropriateness of showing such a film.  In so doing, we underscore that, while university policy supports freedom of expression, the university strongly objects to showing such films.  We regret the offense or discomfort that the showing of such a film may create for members of the campus community.

No student fees are used to support the screening of such films.  The Activities Board does partner with several other student organizations to offer alternative programming on the night the adult movie is shown, supporting the alternative programming with funding and resources from the student committee.

Inspirational Quote:

“Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?
Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice.
God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.
Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.
Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.
Harper: That’s how people change. ”
— Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika)

1 Comment

  1. Heh — at Caltech, they banned the porn movie night, so it was renamed to “ice cream social”, and we served ice cream at it. I was always torn between the need to support free speech and student rights, and an innate dislike for the films themselves. I frequently compromised by going, getting my ice cream, and sitting talking to people with my back to the movie. 🙂

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