Report 99122 Summary - November 1999

California State University Northridge: Absent University Standards and Other Guidance, the World Pornography Conference Was Allowable Under the Basic Tenets of Academic Freedom and Free Speech


In August 1998, the Center for Sex Research (center), part of California State University, Northridge (CSU Northridge), held a four-day symposium entitled "World Pornography Conference: Eroticism and the First Amendment" (conference) at a hotel near Los Angeles. Some critics challenged the conference's academic underpinnings, while others characterized it as merely a "trade show for pornographers." Despite the controversial nature of the conference's subject matter, we found no clear standards for staging such conferences or for judging their academic sufficiency. Therefore, we cannot conclude that the conference lacked academic merit.

No clear standards exist that would have guided the staging of this conference, affected its content or direction, or influenced the expression of the views conveyed. Neither CSU Northridge nor the California State University (CSU) system has pertinent guidance. In general, the tenet of academic freedom-the freedom of teachers to teach and learners to learn without unreasonable restraint-would seem to support the center's right to hold a conference on pornography as long as teaching or learning occurred. Moreover, universities generally believe that setting standards for the content and nature of a conference may violate faculty members' constitutional rights to free assembly and free speech.

According to its critics, the conference failed to include opposing viewpoints and inappropriately used state support. The conference did have a decidedly pro-pornography disposition. A trade group that represents the pornography industry co-hosted it. However, according to scholars with whom we talked, balance is not required at any one conference. Academic freedom provides the arena in which scholars can state their varying ideas, so the presentation of opposing or multiple viewpoints at a single academic event is not necessary. Those with differing views are free to hold their own academic conferences or use other means to make their views known.

Regarding the second criticism, we found no evidence that CSU Northridge gave the center any state funds for the conference; attendance fees more than covered the conference's costs and the conference was held off-campus. The center did use some of the services that CSU Northridge extends to all 58 approved centers on campus, including publicity for upcoming events, but the support services provided by CSU Northridge were neither extensive nor unprecedented.

Finally, because some scholars would say the conference was partly research-oriented, we believe that CSU Northridge could have better stemmed the tide of controversy if it had a process to investigate allegations of misconduct in research. Research misconduct includes fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, deception, or other practices that seriously deviate from those commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research. Procedures for pursuing allegations of research misconduct provide the nation's top public research universities, including the University of California, a vehicle for investigating and reporting allegations of improper research activities by their faculty, staff, or students. The CSU system has not required its component universities to establish procedures to address such allegations, and CSU Northridge has not adopted them on its own.


The CSU system should ensure that its universities set up procedures for responding to allegations of research misconduct so they can better respond to controversies associated with potential research improprieties.


The chancellor's office concurs with our recommendation and indicates a policy addressing it will be ready early next year.