For the second consecutive spring semester, I’m teaching my Humanities 3 course “Navigating Pornography” at Pasadena City College. A year ago, I brought in many guest speakers with widely differing views about the adult entertainment industry; among those speakers were porn performers Kelly Shibari, Alana Evans, and Chris Evans.
In Spring 2012,I attempted to book James Deen, the hugely popular award-winning porn star who grew up in Pasadena and attended PCC a decade ago. His schedule didn’t permit a visit. This year, we were able to agree on a date, and James is expected to come and speak to my students tomorrow, February 27.
As has been common practice over my 20 years at Pasadena City College, professors often invite the public-at-large to attend guest lectures by prominent public figures. Since the mid-1990s, I’ve co-sponsored events with the Associated Students whereby speakers address both my class and other interested attendees in a larger space than my classroom normally provides. We’ve often done this with very controversial speakers; in 1999, for example, a Humanities class which I team-taught brought in the late founder of the Jewish Defense League, Irv Rubin. (Rubin would later go to prison for a plot to murder Congressman Darrell Issa. He committed suicide in custody.) The administration at the time had no problem with press and non-students attending Rubin’s lecture, and did not require special permits. In teaching other controversial classes like Lesbian and Gay History, I’ve brought in other speakers (like Sheila James Kuehl,the first openly gay woman elected to the California State Senate) for events co-sponsored with the Associated Students.
As local and national media are reporting today, college administrators informed me at noon today that they were closing the James Deen event to the public, requiring me to hold the event in my classroom for students only. Though I had pulled a valid activity permit with the Associated Students (the exact same permit I acquired for speakers like Rubin and Kuehl, etc), the college legal counsel and vice-president for academic affairs overrode that authorization. Other faculty members who have sponsored similar public events with the same sort of permits were as stunned as I was. Whatever else might be said, the decision was not in keeping with long-standing traditions of the college. (We’ve had a lot of turnover among the administrators in recent years; the two “suits” with whom I met are kind, competent, and both relatively new to the college.)
Gail Cooper, the college’s legal adviser, told me that she had received word that there might be up to “100 protestors ready to march” on the event, and that the college had decided they lacked the resources to prevent disruption. I told her I was surprised; when James Deen’s own PR firm publicised the event, I’d received a few critical phone calls from conservative community members, but no threats of protest. I’m no stranger to controversy; I told Cooper I thought it odd that none of those threats had been directed towards me. I frankly have no idea if the college did receive legitimate threats of protest, or if right-wing members of the board of trustees (or other prominent campus leaders) balked at offering a welcome to James Deen.
I do want to say that both Cooper and Robert Bell, PCC’s VP for Academic Affairs, stressed that I was within my rights to invite Deen to speak to my class only. I appreciate that they recognize and support academic freedom. But I’m mystified by the refusal to extend a welcome to Deen, now widely recognized as one of the college’s most famous alumni. I have seen no verification of the threats of disruption or protest, and remain unconvinced that the event could not — like so many other similar events in the past — have come off safely and without any hitches for students and the public alike.
I told Cooper and Bell that canceling the public portion of the event would only generate more controversy as I worked with Deen’s representatives to change the press releases and change Facebook invites to which many had already responded. I was left with the impression that they felt that the harm that would be done by hosting someone like Deen (if only because of the “threat of protests”) trumped the negative publicity for the college.
Late today, the college issued this press release. The statement says that we reached an agreement to move the event to a closed classroom. I want to make clear that there were no negotiations; I was simply told that the public event was off. This was a decision unilaterally imposed rather than negotiated. I respect that the college gets to make decisions based on student and public safety, but I contest the implication that James Deen’s appearance posed a potential threat to that sense of good order on campus.
I teach “Navigating Pornography” because I want to equip students with tools to think critically about a pornified culture. I want them to step into a safe space that is neither sexualized nor prudish, that is neither blithely celebratory of porn nor puritanically condemnatory. I want them to wrestle with a wide variety of texts, images, and persons so that they can better understand the role of porn in on our culture. I want them to become advocates for intelligent conversation. Speakers like James Deen, himself an immensely articulate and thoughtful speaker whom I’ve enjoyed interviewing in the past, bring a valuable perspective to both students and the general community.
I am deeply disappointed that all those who were eager to hear James will be unable to do so. I am grateful that my students will still be able to hear him. And I look forward to welcoming other porn performers (and public critics of porn) to my class in the future. I remain proud to teach at Pasadena City College.
UPDATE: I want to note that all the invitations to the local and national adult and mainstream press were made at the request of James Deen and his media representatives. The only reporters I had invited to cover his talk came from the Pasadena City College student newspaper.