The chancellor of a state university in Wisconsin was fired this week after posting pornographic videos with his wife online.
The University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents unanimously decided to dismiss the chancellor, Joe Gow, who had led the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse since 2007 and was its longest-tenured leader since the 1960s. Carmen Wilson, Mr. Gow’s wife, was also removed from her unpaid position as associate to the chancellor.
Karen Walsh, the head of the board, which oversees the system’s 13 universities, said in a statement that the board was “alarmed, and disgusted, by his actions,” without specifying what they were.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Gow and Ms. Wilson said that they believe they were fired over the videos, which included sex scenes together and with others under the username Sexy Happy Couple. Both said they felt it was wrong for the university to punish them over the videos, arguing that doing so infringes on their free speech rights.
“It’s not what we’re about in higher ed, to censor people,” Ms. Wilson said. She added that the videos are only available to those who are looking for such content. “If they seek it out, they’re free to do so,” she said.
Mr. Gow, 63, said he and his wife, 56, have made videos together for years but had decided recently to make them publicly available on porn websites and had been pleased by the response. They said they never mentioned the university or their jobs in the videos, several of which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. The couple also has made a series of videos in which they cook meals with porn actors and then have sex.
“We have that show, ‘Sexy Healthy Cooking,’ where we interview performers and really humanize them in ways that you wouldn’t get in their other work,” Mr. Gow said. “It’s an interesting process, and the people that we work with are completely professional, and very great to work with.”
Jay Rothman, the president of the University of Wisconsin System, said Mr. Gow had caused the university “significant reputational harm.”
Mr. Rothman said that the current plan was for Mr. Gow, who is also a tenured professor of communication, to return to his faculty role following a paid administrative leave. But Mr. Rothman said that he had asked the university to review Mr. Gow’s tenured status and for a law firm to investigate the matter.
Mr. Gow said the university is “not following their own policy on academic freedom and freedom of speech,” adding: “They also don’t seem to realize that the First Amendment would be critical in this situation.”
Mr. Rothman said it was “ridiculous” for Mr. Gow to argue that the First Amendment gave him “a ‘free pass’ to say or do anything that he pleases.”
“We expect our chancellors, as the leaders of these great institutions, to be role models for our students, staff and faculty as well for the communities we are privileged to serve,” Mr. Rothman said.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided a case about a police officer who had been fired for selling a pornographic video of himself. In the case, City of San Diego v. Roe, the court ruled that the officer’s First Amendment right had not been violated. The court said that while public employees have a right to speak on matters of public concern, a pornographic video did not fall into that category.
If Mr. Gow pursued legal action, he would probably have an even tougher road than the police officer in that case, experts said, because courts have often found that public entities have more discretion when removing top officials than rank-and-file employees.
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at George Washington University Law School who studies free speech and other issues, said that Mr. Gow had raised interesting questions about what kinds of expression a university feels obligated to allow.
That question has caused consternation and upheaval at colleges and universities across the country — though typically around divisive political issues.
Ms. Franks noted that another University of Wisconsin System college said this year that it was unable to take action against a student who had posted a racist video online.
“Whether intentionally or not, he’s throwing open the idea that those people who say that they are really committed to free speech, and want discussion on every possible topic, don’t really mean it,” Ms. Franks said.
Mr. Gow has pushed the issue in the past. During a celebration of “Free Speech Week” in 2018, he invited a porn actress to speak to students about the porn industry. The University of Wisconsin System’s president at the time said Mr. Gow had used “poor judgment” in inviting the actress, according to a letter published by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Over his nearly 17 years leading the roughly 10,000-student university along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, Mr. Gow grew the school’s full-time undergraduate enrollment at a time when enrollment at other University of Wisconsin campuses declined significantly. He also oversaw a significant upgrade to campus facilities and emphasized the importance of free speech.
In September, Mr. Gow announced that he was planning to step down from the role of chancellor and return to the faculty. At the time, university officials praised him, and Mr. Gow said that stepping down at that point felt like “going out on the top of your game.”