Classroom Materials Policy


Mickey Eliason teaching sexually explicit content in a "Human Sexuality" class. Iowa Magazine, Feb. 2002.

In the early 1990s, a set of classroom “sex scandals” affected several departments at the university.13 The first one occurred in 1991, when students taking a German language class were encouraged (but not required) to attend German language films to practice their comprehension skills. One of the films aired was a widely acclaimed work called Taxi Zum Klo, about a man who was a closeted school teacher by day and sought out anonymous gay sex by night. It had brief sexually explicit scenes, and the flyer advertising the film said “don’t come near this film if the world of homosexuality upsets you in any way.” A few students complained to the Des Moines Register, the main newspaper for the state, which posted a front page story about it.13

This was followed by a New York Times article. The president of the university, Hunter Rawlings III, condemned the showing of the film, even though it was optional, there was a warning issued about the content, and the students were all adults. The university administration then unilaterally banned any further showings of the film on campus. This was an extraordinary act of censorship for an administration that had refused to condemn The Campus Review’s displays, which promoted violence against queer people. The German Department’s showing of the film also was taken up by the county attorney to determine whether any obscenity laws had been broken; he concluded that none had. In February 1993, a graduate instructor in a large lecture class in the Art Department showed an eight minute video of a local artist’s work that contained 15-20 seconds of men engaged in oral sex. A student told her mother, who went directly to the Board of Regents with a complaint. The student said, “To me, it wasn’t art at all because this guy was trying to push his way of life on other people.” Board of Regents President Marvin Pomerantz was quoted as saying, “Somebody is going to get fired around this university if they don’t follow the rules.” Pomerantz was a conservative businessman from Des Moines who served as board president from 1987 to 1993 and again from 1995 to 1996. He also was a major donor to the University of Iowa and the administration did not want to piss him off and lose that money. The graduate teaching assistant for the class was reprimanded and forced to apologize to the class.14

A few months later, in April 1993, a graduate student teaching an American Studies class called American Cultures showed a widely acclaimed documentary film Paris is Burning, which was about the gay/bi/trans of color drag ball culture in New York City. It was the culture that Madonna appropriated in her song Vogue and the precursor to the recent hit television series Pose. The documentary has no explicit sex scenes; actually it has no sex at all. It is mostly about community building among some of the most marginalized populations in the United States. Three students complained that they had to watch “drag queens.” They argued that this was not a true American culture. This time Marvin Pomerantz was enraged and announced that the next time a controversy of this nature happened, someone would get fired. “Three strikes and you’re out,” he said. In the fall of 1993, the Board of Regents demanded that the University of Iowa create a sexually explicit materials policy. The Board proposed that students must be warned ahead of time if the class would include “graphic, still photo, motion film form, or otherwise” materials that included “explicit representation of human sexual acts that could reasonably be expected to be offensive for some students.”15

Pomerantz was replaced as Board of Regents president for two years, but the new president, Marvin Berenstein, also supported the policy and made comments to the media about the university ignoring the taxpayers, the “common people,” and “accepted social mores.”16 The Board received an outpouring of correspondence opposing the policy from outsiders, including Noam Chomsky, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, and the American Association of University Professors, the latter of which voiced its concern and established a committee to look at these challenges to academic freedom.

Neither the Board of Regents nor the university administration ever condemned The Campus Review for its AIDS gerbil quilt, lies about the sexual practices of gay men, the student union displays depicting two men in anal sex, or Bart Simpson threatening violence against gay men and using derogatory language. These were much more sexually explicit than Paris is Burning, demonstrating the double standards used by the university. In addition, The Campus Review displays in the student union affected thousands of students who had to walk by the display as compared to the few who complained about a brief mention of queer or trans issues in a class.

By 1994, the university faculty had been unable to agree upon a policy that met Board of Regents approval, because most faculty were adamantly opposed to the early drafts and the idea of having such a policy in the first place. A so-called compromise policy, imposed unilaterally by the university administration (and issued by President Rawlings), removed sexual acts as the central theme and broadened the language to call for warning students about “unusual or unexpected” materials. This “compromise” was developed by Rawlings during winter break and never brought to the Faculty Senate for discussion or approval. Rawlings instead sent it directly to the Regents, who approved this broader language. As Jean Fallow and colleagues reported, “The policy’s domain is now much broader than that [same-sex sexuality]: it can be used to discipline instructors for presenting any idea or classroom materials deemed undesirable by the university administration or the Board of Regents.”16

The consequences of the policy were far-reaching. In the 1990s, a French literature professor had to warn students that one of the books on the reading list praised women’s bodies and sexuality. An instructor in a course on Greek and Latin vocabulary had to warn students that certain word roots might be offensive to them. A teaching assistant for a class on Latinos in the United States reported that students objected to doing research for an assignment on the effects of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Students said the issue was “too political.” Apparently current national policy can be considered “unusual or unexpected.” Graduate student Kevin Floyd noted, “The classroom materials policy not only condescends to students and teachers and implicitly endorses homophobia; it also creates a contentious, potentially hostile atmosphere, an atmosphere in which students and teachers alike are encouraged to assume from the beginning, that they will have to defend themselves from ‘offensive attitudes.’”17

The policy required that instructors offer alternative assignments for activities that were unusual or unexpected, leaving confusion in its wake. Faculty were divided on the issue and a group of students and professors formed the Campaign for Academic Freedom to oppose the policy. A petition that garnered over 2000 signatures called the policy a “grave threat to academic freedom.” A year later, Rawlings left the presidency of the University of Iowa, and with a new president, the policy simply disappeared without comment.

This issue is being addressed again in the 2020s in efforts to rewrite the history of the United States and the world by purging any content that might make anyone uncomfortable--including lessons about slavery, colonization, sexism, or the Holocaust. The topics that arguably make students (or anyone) uncomfortable are incredibly diverse and unpredictable and could include ideas that are critical to learning the content of a class or program. Some of the questions we as the LGBT university community raised during the debates about the policy included: Could a social work student be exempted from learning about childhood sexual abuse because it was distressing? Could a nursing student get an alternative assignment rather than look at a naked body? If white students found it distressing to learn about the history of racism in the United States, could they opt out of that content? If medical students found it distressing to look at a baby with a cleft palate, could they skip that experience? For decades, students have been subjected to sexual jokes and innuendos in the classroom from straight white male professors, and no syllabus policy has challenged the climate that those comments create. The system is designed to protect the status quo. That is, sexual harassment by men is okay, just business as usual, but any mention or sign of LGBT lives, people of color’s struggles, or women’s empowerment is bad (see Sara Ahmed for a cogent discussion of what happens when marginalized people try to complain about their mistreatment).18

Fallow and colleagues observed back in the 1990s: “Because the university makes claims to respect for diversity, it cannot blatantly prohibit the discussion of homosexual issues in the classroom. Therefore, it devises the warning system, which tells students that although the materials they are about to discuss are ‘cultural,’ they are not necessarily equal to the cultural traditions officially sanctioned by the university.”19

This discussion foreshadowed current debates on critical race theory, the gutting of women/gender studies, the “don’t say gay” policy in Florida, and current attacks on education by the Republican governor and legislature in Iowa. Iowa now has a ban on divisive content in public schools, which legislators are trying to impose on the university as well as K-12 schools. They have gone beyond asking for trigger warnings to actual bans on queer/trans content (see Stitzlein for more detail about the effects of bans on divisive concepts, defined as “topics that cause students to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other psychological distress about their own race/gender.”)20

Telling the true history of our nation or the history of oppression is uncomfortable for some but useful for others. Similarly, witnessing new and different cultural expressions of gender and sexuality can be difficult for some and empowering to others. Just because it makes some people uncomfortable doesn’t make it wrong or untrue. Every event at University of Iowa that received coverage in the media was a depiction of LGBTQ identity or expression--not sexual violence, racism, abuse, war, genocide, murder, harassment, or other things that understandably make people uncomfortable. The policy was based clearly and obviously on anti-LGBTQ sentiment but obscured that fact by calling it “unusual and unexpected materials.” True transformational learning requires feeling uncomfortable as a motivator to stretch and grow and be open to new ideas. The policy, as well as all the media attention to it, created an atmosphere of fear and intimation that prevented many faculty from broaching controversial topics in class and kept some students from participating in discussions.

Ironically, the University administration consistently called on the First Amendment to defend The Campus Review’s right to express anti-LGBT sentiment, but sought to constrain and restrict content about LGBT issues in the classroom, where there would have been space for monitored debate and scrutiny of the claims.