Real Sex, College Edition

Last year's graphic cable show at U. of California at San Diego sets off debate over censorship and taste.
March 30, 2006

The oral sex-loving fictional characters of the WB’s “The Bedford Diaries,” a sexually charged series about students attending a fictional New York City college, have got nothing on Steven York, a real-life recent graduate of the University of California at San Diego. With a little help from a porn actress, he's set off lasting campus debates after literally letting it all hang out on a student TV program.

Last fall, York, who’s now in the process of applying to law school, decided to take on what he says is an uptight administration, not in tune with students. He had long enjoyed poking fun at the follies of administrators and faculty members through his student-produced “Koala TV” show, but in October, he stepped things up a notch, hiring an adult film actress and producing a video of them performing mutual masturbation and oral sex, as well as having intercourse. 

The video aired twice on the university’s student-run television station before administrators cut the broadcast feed, which is operated through the Triton Cable network. The station could be viewed through closed-service television by nearly 8,000 students living on campus, most of whom are freshmen and sophomores.

“This incident, where we had a student air a hard-core pornographic video, illuminated to the campus that we had a resource that we should be able to decide how to manage and administer,” says Gary R. Ratcliff, acting assistant vice chancellor of student life at the university. “Steve York wouldn’t have been on our radar if he didn’t try to push the limits.”

The limits of what could be broadcast on the station, however, have been somewhat hard to define, since administrators haven’t had control over its content since the station’s founding in the 1990s. The station was initially set up and funded through a charter by the student government. When York’s broadcasts first aired, administrators requested that the student government take actions to prevent the airing of graphic sex and nudity, and they obliged.

But the sexcapades didn’t end there. York and several students affiliated with the station were able to garner enough signatures to have a special referendum earlier this year, letting the student body vote to decide whether or not they felt graphical depictions should be allowed to air on the station between the hours of 10 p.m. through 6 a.m. A majority voted against the ban, effectively preventing the student government from enforcing more stringent regulations. Since that time, some members of the student government, including its current president, Christopher Sweeten, have opposed administrators’ efforts to enact control over the station.

“We have a charter that we believe in,” says Andrew Tess, a station manager at the university’s Student-Run Television station. “And the administration hasn’t cared at every step of this situation.”

“We’re an outlet for student productions,” adds Tess. “We want our media to produce discussions and campus dialogue.” 

Some students have argued, too, that if campus residents are going to be forced to pay for the cable services, the university should offer a way to opt out of the service entirely. 

Further angering Tess, York and other students is a new policy that Ratcliff drafted with the assistance of university lawyers. The policy states that “broadcasts of indecent language or material are prohibited between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m." (During the daytime hours, such content wouldn’t be allowed to be aired due to Federal Communications Commission rules.) Under the policy, the term “indecent language or material” has the same meaning as the current definition used by the FCC.

According to the FCC, indecent language or material, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. 

The policy would also give Joseph W. Watson, the vice chancellor of student affairs, the power to cut the station’s feed without “notice, to halt or prevent suspected violations of this policy.”

Comments on the proposed policy are being accepted through April 7, at which time administrators will then decide whether to implement or modify it.

“I think it’s conceivable that the policy will be enacted,” says Ratcliff. “And the station's signal will soon be reactivated.”

York isn’t convinced that the administrators will win this battle. He sees the creation of the policy as a way to highlight what he calls “the power hungry bureaucrats in the California education system.” He and others plan a publicity campaign to get alumni to support their efforts.

Students have also said that they have contacted legal representation in the event that the university attempts to enact the policy.

Toni Urbano, president of the Association of Higher Education Cable Television Administrators, says that universities would be wise to review their policies regarding student-created media before such scenarios develop. At New York University, where Urbano manages the institution’s television station, she says that the student station has long operated under FCC guidelines.

“As more and more cases like this UCSD scenario come about, I’m sure more universities are going to be proactive about how to monitor what goes out on their stations," says Urbano.

With mainstream television shows, like “The Bedford Files” depicting a range of sexual behaviors among college students, some have questioned whether administrators are fighting a losing cultural battle. But even that show has recently faced censorship from the WB network, in light of the FCC’s decision to fine networks that air material it deems as indecent. 

“Students have sex,” maintains York.  “And we like it.”

But Ratcliff argues that he doesn’t see an increasing number of students expressing the desire to have sex on student television with porn stars. He says that some students want to get attention for their exploits, but sharing their adventures isn’t necessarily fair to the rest of campus.

Marsha Malinow, a junior majoring in international studies at UCSD, says that she’s worried about students living in dorms who are under age 18 who have access to such content. She thinks that York could have filmed a more tasteful video, as well, and she believes that the attention it’s received could be harmful to the institution.

Tess and Malinow both say that they wouldn’t have starred in such a pornographic production, and Urbano says she hasn't seen such a situation come up at NYU.

Even York admits that he isn’t so fond of doing more porn work in front of the camera. “I don’t really like being naked,” he says. “I’m actually more comfortable behind the camera.”


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