NCAC recently fielded a plea for help from a Boston University student filmmaker, at the College of Communication, whose film Wake Up had been removed from regular class consideration and critique for reasons which depended very much on point of view. The student thought it was art. The faculty called it pornography.
What was not in dispute was that the student had included sexually explicit content in the film, his choice consciously made to point up the limits of allowable expression in the forums in which he and his peers work. From Prof. Charlie Anderson’s perspective, however, the work was “pornographic” and “created a hostile environment for my students.” Prof. Anderson and his colleagues cited the BU sexual harassment policy as their grounds for excluding the film from regular consideration and made significant efforts to navigate what they judged to be choppy waters: the strait between the Scylla of sexually-harassing students and the Charybdis of censoring their work.
BU’s College of Communication deserves an A- for effort but a C for execution. In the NCAC’s view, BU’s sexual harassment policy is not rightly applied to restrict the content of student artwork offered in good faith for the completion of class assignments. In its letter to Dr. Tammy Vigil, Associate Dean of BU’s College of Communication, NCAC articulated its position:
Screening a sexually explicit film in the context of a university-level filmmaking class attended by a mixed group of college-age students may be troubling, challenging, even offensive to some, but it does not constitute sexual harassment according to BU’s policy as it simply does not represent “pervasive” or “severe” conduct “directed at an individual.” To assert the policy in this case twists it to serve the goal of segregating controversial material and, we believe, does a disservice to sexual harassment’s real victims.
The prejudicial segregation and exclusion from the educational process of material troubling to some opens the door to removal of other content deemed offensive (whether sexual, political, religious, etc.), a bad precedent to set, especially at the College of Communication. College offers young artists, writers and filmmakers the chance to experiment, test boundaries, explore different creative paths, and even to be provocative. Discriminating against work that may be disturbing or offensive interferes with that process. After all, many well-regarded films, artworks and novels contain sexually explicit – or otherwise controversial – content. Explicit sexual content has an established place in film history: Baise-moi, Fireworks, Flaming Creatures, In the Realm of the Senses, Irreversible, Last Tango in Paris, all are examples of controversial works without which the history of film would be much the poorer. Students may or may not yet wield skills and techniques equal to the power of the material they choose, but that is exactly what their education is for.
NCAC recommended that in future, COM should insure students’ creative freedom by reminding them that serious studies may bring encounters with material they personally dislike or even find disturbing. BU should clearly remind its students and faculty of its own policy: that “[n]o university can or should guarantee that every idea expressed in its classrooms or laboratories will be inoffensive to all; pursued seriously, education and scholarship necessarily entail raising questions about received opinions and conventional interpretations.” We heartily agree.