Senate threat helps kill UM plan to show porn

General Assembly 2009

April 03, 2009|By Gadi Dechter, Laura Smitherman and Stephen Kiehl | Gadi Dechter, Laura Smitherman and Stephen Kiehl, and

Maryland lawmakers know pornography when they see it, and they know how to stop it: by threatening to halt funding to the state's flagship public university.

Civil liberties groups criticized Thursday a decision by the University of Maryland to cancel a campus screening of what is billed as the most expensive adult film ever made.

During a lively Senate debate on pornography and the First Amendment, it became clear that politicians were prepared to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid unless the public university backed down from a plan to show Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge in the College Park student union.

Senators' arguments were postponed several times as groups of young schoolchildren on field trips to the State House took seats in the second-floor gallery.

At one point, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller explained to the visitors why senators kept changing the subject. "If you kids are wondering what we're doing, we're waiting for you to leave the room," he said. "We're going to talk about some bad stuff."

David Rocah, staff attorney with the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the legislature's threats and UM's apparent capitulation "an incredibly dangerous and disturbing precedent."

Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at Maryland, said she decided to cancel the screening for a variety of reasons - not just the outrage in Annapolis.

"I think people were concerned about portrayal of women, concerned about violence, concerned about our students and decision-making processes," she said. "We were losing sight of the educational value that might come from some kind of exercise like this, so it just seemed like the best thing to do."

Advertised as a "XXX blockbuster" that cost $10 million to produce, the film was scheduled to be shown at midnight Saturday. A student programming committee voted to screen the movie and, as recently as Wednesday, campus officials defended the event as a "fun" alternative to off-campus drinking and were vowing not to block the showing.

That was before Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a conservative Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, proposed writing into the state budget a denial of funding to any institution of higher education that allows a public screening of a film marketed as XXX-rated, unless it is part of an academic course.

Miller, a Democrat and vocal UM backer, indicated that he would vote for the budget amendment, giving credence to the threat of choking off the university's financial lifeblood.

As the floor action became increasingly heated, behind-the-scenes negotiations took place between legislative staff and lobbyists for the university.

Harris, who said he has three daughters, including one in college and one enrolling next year, called the movie screening "an implicit endorsement" by the university of pornography.

"Pornography is not fun; it's poison," he said. "They want to get our kids hooked on pornography."

At that moment, third-graders from Plum Point Elementary School began taking their seats in the gallery overlooking the Senate chamber.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and constitutional law professor, said that no student had to see the movie if he or she didn't want to and argued that the college had a First Amendment right to screen it. Raskin noted that he has never seen such a film.

"Let's show the students who are in the gallery today that we stand up for the First Amendment," he said.

After receiving word that College Park officials had canceled the event, Miller made an announcement and Harris withdrew his amendment. The college's more than $400 million general fund contribution was spared, but its reputation might have been tarnished in the eyes of civil liberties defenders.

Adam Kissel, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the legislature was "far out of line" for threatening to withhold funding and called the university's reaction "distressing."

"I think because of the autonomy that a public university ought to have versus the legislature, the [administration] should not have canceled the film," Kissel said, though he added that it was not immediately clear whether the film would have constituted protected speech under the First Amendment.

Likewise, Rocah characterized the university's newfound misgivings about the movie as disingenuous. "Yesterday, the university said they had no intention to censor this," he said. "Today, following the legislature's threat, they suddenly discover all kinds of things that are troubling. I think that ... ends up trivializing what I think are very legitimate subjects for discussion."

Clement said it was appropriate for state lawmakers to debate what films a university shows on campus.

"I think state legislators have the right to weigh in on many, many issues regarding state agencies," she said.

Sean Kibby, a junior, said he was glad that the university had decided to cancel the movie.

"It's almost a joke to be a Maryland student and have this happen," said Kibby, 21, of Annapolis. "To make the argument that it's an alternative to going out and drinking on Route 1 is ridiculous."

Four years ago, the university's student union showed Deep Throat, the well-known 1972 porn film. On Thursday, campus officials said the university would renew a discussion about whether to consider showing porn films in the future.

It is a conversation that Pirates' own marketers appear to have suggested. The tag line for the movie is "Proceed at Yer Own Risk."

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