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Concerns for free speech contradict UW System President’s reprimand letter

UW System President Ray Cross reprimanded UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow over inviting a porn star to campus, triggering backlash on behalf of freedom of speech.

UW System President Ray Cross reprimanded UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow over inviting a porn star to campus, triggering backlash on behalf of freedom of speech.

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For inviting a porn star as a college speaker on campus, UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow received a reprimand letter from UW System President Ray Cross earlier this month.

Gow invited Nina Hartley, a 59-year-old former porn actress, to speak about female empowerment and consent as well as the distinction between porn and reality. He paid her $5,000 from his discretionary fund for her 90-minute-speech.

Despite the backlash, Gow told reporters from The Seattle Times that he was trying to advocate for the freedom of expression.

“She seemed like a person who had a life experience dramatically different than the rest of us,” Gow said.

Upon being asked whether the System’s actions were consistent with its policy, Gow waited a few seconds before answering.

“I would hope that all of us take a breath and take a look at the policy and see there’s an important principle here, and that’s promoting and protecting free speech on campus,” he said.

However, Cross disagrees, claiming the basis of the letter was “for exercising poor judgment." 

“Apart from my personal underlying moral concerns, I am deeply disappointed by your decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the UW-La Crosse campus to lecture students about sex and the adult entertainment industry," Cross wrote in the letter.

Additionally, Cross addressed concerns about the use of Gow’s discretionary fund. As a result, he called for an audit into the chancellor’s four-year fund spending.

“As we continue to struggle for greater financial independence and public trust, your decision to spend money from this fund on a one-sided lecture by an ‘... (adult entertainment) performer, educator, and ... activist’ unfortunately puts all of our funding at risk,” Cross wrote.

Hartley’s event was held during the UW-La Crosse’s “Free Speech Week,” which is dedicated to protecting free expressionism under the new System policy.

However, Nicholas Fleisher, an associate professor of linguistics at UW-Milwaukee, did not share the same disdain for Gow’s decision. For him, this exercised free expression on the campus.

“I think that the response from Cross and Atwell is way over-the-top and deeply hypocritical given what the Board has done in the past year or two around ‘free speech’ on campus,” Fleisher said. “Gow should absolutely not be reprimanded.”

Regent Bob Atwell stated in his letter to La Crosse Tribune that instead of freedom of speech, the issue was pornography.

“Pornography is a horrible hill on which to plant the flag of free expression,” he wrote. “I am hopeful this will result in a deep conversation about pornography rather than a shallow one about freedom.”

This led Fleisher to “wonder why he thinks that the event at UW-La Crosse wasn't part of such a conversation.”

At the time Gow’s decision was released, reporters often covered the influence of the reprimand letter instead of Hatley’s discussion. Knowing the traction that this coverage got, Fleisher noted how this looks for the System.

“I think the national uptake of this story makes UW System leadership look ridiculous,” he said. “The story is the egregious reprimand, not the underlying speaking invitation.”

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