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College Students Have Sex! Network Shocked!

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It’s a sad fact of free speech advocacy that you rarely end up defending really, really good speech. Flag burners tend to be obnoxious, childish ideologues; that Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake performance was really lame; and the less said about Opie and Anthony, the better. But the Founding Fathers did not write an amendment to exclude speech that sucks.

The WB series The Bedford Diaries is the latest cultural work that’s more important as a free-speech case than as a work of art. The show debuting tonight, comes from Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide) and is about students at an elite college attending a human-sexuality class run by a charismatic professor (Matthew Modine). The show contains a lot of sex–more talking than doing–but months ago the network censors decided it was fine to air.

Or it was fine, until the FCC levied a few million dollars in indecency fines a couple weeks ago. Then The WB decided to re-edit the show, over the producers’ objections, to play it safe, cutting among other things, a scene of implied masturbation and some dialogue about oral sex. (The original, uncut pilot will be shown on The WB website.) Fellatio, self-pleasuring–it does sound titillating. It also sounds, um, exactly like what college students, even those not enrolled in a class about sex, might be concerned with.

The Bedford Diaries is not a great show; it’s not an awful show, either. It’s often better-written, and nearly always more ambitious, than most shows written about and for college-aged viewers. Rarely for a show set in college, it accepts the premise that going to college is about learning ideas; it does a good job of capturing the heady, politically charged, earnest atmosphere at an American college of a certain level and ambition. But it also internalizes a lot of the pretentiousness of said colleges and is far too talky and self-serious for its own good. The only other thing thaat could make an hour of sex this dull is a college seminar.

And let’s face it: a producer who airs a show that’s blatantly about young people and sex shouldn’t be shocked when its content proves controversial, any more than a college professor who puts a class about young people and sexuality on the class schedule. Still, in a rational country, we would accept that a show about a college seminar on sex will have sexual content. And that, if you are offended by sexual content, you will exercise your right not to watch it.

We don’t live in a rational country, though. Even if The Bedford Diaries doesn’t last that long–and even if it doesn’t deserve to–it deserves credit for spelling that lesson out on the chalkboard.

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