April 23, 2010
Does academic freedom protect professor's right to blog about scoring prostitutes?
This is a story that raises a morass of legal issues including the first amendment, academic freedom, tenure rights, and perhaps violations of federal law that prohibit enticing people to travel aboard for prostitutes. Inside Higher Ed is reporting, via the Los Angeles Daily News, on a story involving Cal-State, Northridge Economics Professor Kenneth Ng who maintains a website called "BigBabyKenny" that provides advice on how to score female prostitutes in Thailand. Because Professor Ng is tenured and claims his website doesn't use university resources, he argues that the first amendment and academic freedom principles mean he can write about anything he chooses.
So far university officials appear stymied saying "they will not intervene or discipline Ng as long as his extracurricular activities do not involve public resources." What's surprising is that the university, as far as I can tell, hasn't issued an official statement denouncing the professor's actions. Professor Ng says that "I'm not going to let anyone make me take it down."
According to the Daily News, the main focus of Ng's website is
sex tourism, or what Ng calls 'the Thailand Girl Scene.' Ng and other bloggers offer their take on where to find the prettiest and most eager "bar girls," and how to negotiate a fee.
While postings do warn men to stay away from underage girls, they also make references to paying adult women for sex.
'The whole system sounds a bit unsavory to Western sensibilities but the system is ubiquitous in Bangkok among foreigners and native Thais and a form of the same system is prevalent in most Asian countries — communist China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Vietnam,' Ng wrote in a recent post.
Ng also shares this observation: 'The Thailand Girls Scene is all about expanded opportunities. It allows you to do things that just cannot be done in 'The World' or lowers the cost so much that a guy with a normal income can do things which he could never afford in 'The World.''
One of the commenters at Inside Higher Ed. said that Cal-State, Northridge is a union shop meaning any action the administration wants to take against Ng will be difficult and take time.
Regarding the academic freedom and first amendment issues, the Daily News reports:
Questions of what constitutes freedom of speech and censorship when a professor is acting as a "citizen" remain "very tricky and complicated," said Greg Scholtz, a specialist in academic freedom issues for the American Association of University Professors.
"The AAUP, since its inception in 1915, has had to deal with faculty members who got in trouble for things they said outside the classroom or outside of the university as citizens," Scholtz said.
Scholtz said each university has its own set of standards and policies. In general, however, the AAUP refers to a set of ethics drawn up in 1940 that says professors should be free from discipline for their speech as private citizens.
At the same time, they should recognize their "special obligations" to the community because of their esteemed positions.
The site may not violate any CSUN rules, but it does leave Ng open to criticism, said Joan Bertin, an attorney and the executive director for the National Coalition Against Censorship.
She said in a quick scan of the site she did not see anything that appeared to be illegal such as underage pornography
With respect to the possible violations of federal law, Inside Higher Ed reports:
Some question whether Ng has crossed a gray legal line, however, by advising men on sex tourism. Patrick Trueman, a former U.S. justice department official, notes that there are several federal statutes that could come into play. Within U.S. Code 18 are two sections – 2422 (a) and 2422 (b) – that specifically prohibit anyone from “enticing or coercing a person” to travel internationally in pursuit of prostitutes. Moreover, one section specifically prohibits the use of the Internet to lure people.
While prostitution may be tolerated in Thailand, that’s immaterial under the federal code, Trueman said.
“Inducing and enticing? Isn’t that what this guy’s doing?” said Trueman, former chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section in the Criminal Division.
Trueman, now a lawyer specializing in sex trafficking and child abuse cases, said there would likely be debate about whether talking about procuring prostitutes online and actually arranging prostitutes for a person should be treated differently under the law.
“Given how lax the fed government is on these crimes, they may not charge somebody unless they are more directly involved,” he said. “That’s not to say this person couldn’t be charged, and as I read it they could be charged.”
Professor Ng's website has even spawned a parody called BigDummyKenny.com which is aimed at providing a forum for his many critics.
April 23, 2010 | Permalink
First Amendment rights are not absolute. Even if this professor's actions are protected under the First Amendment, then it is still subject to the Pickering balancing test. My view is that the case will turn on how disruptive this prof activities are to the university and its students. If there is a public uproar and many students refuse to take his class, then his actions will likely tip in favor of not being protected.
Posted by: Mitchell H. Rubinstein | Apr 23, 2010 2:29:11 PM
Suppose he were writting not about Thai prostitutes, but about Nevada ones. Could there really be different consequences resulting from the country of cupidity?
Posted by: Neal Johnston | Apr 24, 2010 8:48:30 AM
"My view is that the case will turn on how disruptive this prof activities are to the university and its students."
Oh, pipe down and don't get your panties in a bunch.
Pretty coeds are more of a "disruption" to a university than some prof blogging about scoring hookers in Thailand.
Posted by: Anon | Apr 26, 2010 10:13:39 AM