Value and cost of UNH sex workers conference questioned
DURHAM — Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire has taken issue with an April conference hosted by students at the University of New Hampshire that focused on sex workers' rights.
In particular, the organization has requested any and all documentation related to payment and travel costs reimbursed by the university for the event, including travel costs for at least one sex worker to travel from California to be part of the panel.
In April, students in a Women's Studies course titled "The Global Sex Industry" hosted a daylong mini-conference titled "Sex Workers Rights are Human Rights" focused on the commercial sex industry and sex workers' rights. A panel of five speakers at the event included three current or former prostitutes or strippers, including Kitty Stryker of California.
Following the presentation, Americans for Prosperity filed a right-to-know request with the university requesting all documents related to the presentation, including financial transactions.
UNH responded in part, but denied parts of the request, leading to another letter from AfP on Thursday.
Greg Moore, state director for AfP-NH, said their primary concern is how the university system is spending taxpayer and student dollars.
"What I've heard from numerous members of AfP, the public and legislators is that their concern is that the conference with the content being focused on sex workers and flying prostitutes in from California is not a necessary expenditure for UNH if the goal is to get the tuition down as low as possible," Moore said.
The university determined costs associated with the event totaled about $2,246.40, of which $1,140.66 came out of income from the Sustainability Institute's endowment fund and the remainder from student organizations' budgets that students accessed on their own.
Moore said UNH provided the total dollar figure, but documents provided to AfP-NH under the right-toknow request only add up to a portion of that. In a May 9 response letter, AfP-NH demanded documentation to back up the total expense.
Moore said there is also the larger argument of ensuring government entities comply with right-to-know laws.
In his response for the university dated May 6, attorney Charles Putnam said certain "statutorily exempt information" was redacted, in addition to other information the university said it cannot legally provide, including student records and scholarly communications between Professor Joelle Ryan and members of the panel.
The university argues that records created and retained by individual students and student organizations related to the event are not "governmental records" or "public records" and are protected from disclosure as "personal school records" under state law.
The university argues that the same holds true for correspondence between Ryan and individual students.
Likewise, the university argues confidentiality of intellectual discussions among scholars is vital to effective scholarship and the educational mission of the university.
Putnam argues that if professors' scholarly correspondence is deemed to be subject to public disclosure under the state's Right-to-Know law, the likely consequence would be the loss of talented and creative teachers who will choose to leave public institutions for private ones that can guarantee them privacy and confidentiality necessary in academia.
Attorney John Flynn, general counsel for AfP-NH, argues in his May 9 response that the university's claims do not fit into permissible exemptions.
He also argues that the university cannot withhold information about a student organization using university funds based on a claim of invasion of privacy, as it is not a recognized exemption.
He also states that the emails from Ryan they are seeking are not part of any student's "education records."
"We expect people should be doing the public's business in plain view and not being able to hide behind bogus exemptions that exist nowhere in state law," Moore said. "It is not even the material right now, it is more the principle of the Right-to-Know law, and it is something we will certainly go as far as it takes to make sure state law is followed and transparency is maintained … hopefully UNH will comply shortly and we'll get the full answers as to, particularly, where the $2,200 (came from)."
On Thursday, Erika Mantz, director of media relations for UNH, said they had received the May 9 letter and it was under review by legal counsel.
gmacalaster@ newstote. com