Porn at UM

Our view: The ham-fisted effort to block an adult film screening hurt the school's reputation and set a bad precedent for future political meddling on campus

April 07, 2009

University of Maryland President C.D. Mote Jr. says he wants the state's flagship campus at College Park to climb into the top tier of public research universities. But that's not likely to happen if UM gets the reputation as a school that caves at the first sign of political meddling by lawmakers. When UM students got into a spitting match with conservative state Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County over his threat to cut the school's funding if the adult movie Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge were shown on campus, Mr. Mote canceled the screening without even bothering to explain his actions to students. That sent the wrong signal about the university's commitment to academic and intellectual freedom.

The timing was especially bad. The deadline for approving the state budget was just days away (Monday, in fact, but budget discussions continued) - and the prospects of possible cuts viable. Meanwhile, UM student government elections were approaching and candidates of the Student Power Party were grandstanding the issue of censorship. Students planned a shortened screening last night on campus and asked some professors to participate in a discussion of porn, free speech and what they saw as the legislature's arbitrary intrusion into their affairs. Everybody was playing politics with this one.

State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office says it wasn't asked to offer a legal opinion on the issue but expects that a request could still be made. In 2004, Mr. Gansler's predecessor wrote a memo saying the university can legally prohibit "offensive language" under certain carefully defined circumstances without violating the First Amendment. How that applies to porn films is unclear, however, since obscenity is not constitutionally protected speech. So the dispute could go on.

There's no doubt pornography degrades women and coarsens society. It is not harmless entertainment, and recent reports suggest it's dangerously addictive among college-age men. We hope young people figure that out pretty quickly through forums like the one held last night. In the meantime, lawmakers' threatening to shut down the university won't help and may make matters worse. It's a heavy-handed way of dealing with a complicated issue; moreover, do we really want lawmakers scrutinizing every film, lecture, play or poetry reading students attend? It's the better part of wisdom for them to realize that's not their job, and that attempting to do so sets a troubling precedent that can jeopardize the many years of work that have been invested in raising UM's stature.

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