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University of Montana sex column causes law professor to call for student newspaper to reevaluate hiring practices

March 17, 2009

MONTANA -- A University of Montana law professor upset over content in the campus newspaper's sex column is calling on the paper to establish written guidelines for hiring and editorial decision-making.

Late last fall, the Kaimin began publishing UM senior Bess Davis' "Bess Sex Column," which touches on topics from Facebook-relationship statuses to sex toys to oral sex practices. Her writing style and content drew both positive and negative attention, the latter being voiced most vigorously by UM law Professor Kristen Juras.

In February, the Kaimin published a letter to the editor from Juras in which she called the column "embarrassingly unprofessional" and said it affects her "reputation as a member of the faculty." Juras has since met with Kaimin Editor-in-Chief Bill Oram to relay her concern about the paper's hiring policies, saying she will "go through all of the administrative levels" to get the column stopped, according to Oram.

"Let me assure you, I am not opposed to the publishing of a column on sexual topics," Juras said. "I am opposed to the particular content of [Davis'] column."

Juras went on to say that, because the Kaimin is taxpayer- and tuition-funded, it necessarily has an educational purpose. In writing about sex, Juras said, the columnist should have some kind of expertise in the subject in order to provide substantive, educational material.

"If you're going to hire someone to write a column on legal issues, wouldn't you look for someone with some background? A law student maybe? Does personal experience count as background?" Juras said.

In her debut column, Davis opened with a disclaimer that she is not a "sexpert," but has simply "been at this for awhile now" and wants to enjoy writing about it as much as she does having it and talking about it.

According to Oram, demanding expertise from a writer before granting her column inches in the college newspaper is simply not viable.

"We have a lot of college students who give their opinion on topics they aren't necessarily experts in ... to add to the conversation and spark debate," he said. "We're in pursuit of our degrees here, so to expect us to be experts in any area is unrealistic."

In response to Juras's premise that, as a student newspaper, the Kaimin's purpose is primarily educational, Oram said she is "simply wrong."

"Of course educating future journalists is part of it, but this isn't 'practice,'" he said. "Our primary job is to cover the University of Montana."

And for Oram, part of covering UM is allowing for a column that explores an issue relevant to a majority of the campus community.

"You tell [Juras] that if she can prove that college students aren't having casual sex, we'll stop talking about sex casually," he said.

Still, Juras maintains that some of the content of Davis' columns does not fulfill an educational purpose, and the hiring of employees like Davis should be subject to guidelines that ensure the writers are opining on topics in which they have some training.

Further, the newspaper would be wise to publish a counterpoint column to Davis', Juras said, as the "Bess Sex Column" generally advocates a hook-up culture.

"Can we have another one advocating something else?" she said.

Juras told Oram she would appeal to the Associated Students of the University of Montana to step in if the column continued to run as is, and if the Kaimin did not proceed with establishing hiring and publishing guidelines.

"That's a fight I'm willing to welcome," Oram said in response. "It might just help some other sex columnist or some other editor in the future."

According to Trevor Hunter, Associated Students of the University of Montana president, Juras contacted him for the names of ASUM Publications Board members as well as the Kaimin's yearly budget.

As for ASUM stepping in to stop the sex column or demand hiring policy changes, Hunter said it is not in ASUM's discretion to do so.

"[T]he ASUM Publications Board does not and will not, as provided for in Regents policy, exercise editorial oversight over the Kaimin," Hunter said in an e-mail. "The Kaimin is funded by its own fee ($4/semester) and is not an agency of ASUM -- the only connection between the Kaimin and ASUM is through the Publications Board, which exercises no discretionary oversight over the Kaimin other than the annual appointment of the Kaimin Editor and Business Manager."

By Kate Maternowski, SPLC staff writer

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© 2009 Student Press Law Center

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