At UM, the triple-x show goes on

University lets students air porn as act of free speech

April 07, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,

COLLEGE PARK - More than 100 students cheered swashbuckling and sex-crazed pirates in a pornographic film that screened at the University of Maryland on Monday night - a film that, at various points in the past week, state lawmakers and the university tried to suppress.

University administrators, who canceled a planned showing of Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge last week after lawmakers threatened to withhold funding, reversed their position Monday and allowed the screening as long as it included an educational component.

Students packed a campus lecture hall, filling every seat, standing along the walls and sitting on the floor, to hear four experts speak on freedom of speech and then watch the first 30 minutes of the hard-core film.

The entire movie was not screened because students said they had better things to do on a Monday night.

But they had made their point.

"It's not a matter of this being pornography," said Scott Whalen, 20, a junior from Queen Anne's County. "It's a matter of them taking away our right to do something."

Lawmakers said they would ask the state university system to develop a policy on addressing sexually explicit material on campus, stepping back from a proposal last week to cut off funding. Monday, some legislators seemed chagrined by that initial response.

"We're starting to sound more like China or Cuba as opposed to the Free State," said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The film, in scenes shown to students Monday night, elicited giggles and some groans for its hokey sex scenes and corny dialogue. Students seemed more grossed out than turned on. After the first sex scene, they applauded and cheered - congratulating themselves for having seen it in a campus classroom.

Controversy over the movie erupted last week. The university had originally planned to show the 2 1/2 -hour film, marketed as rated "XXX," at the student union Saturday. Administrators backed down after lawmakers protested. But then students felt their right of free speech had been violated.

"We're all very upset that our administration caved to the pressure," said Mary Yanik, a sophomore from Kansas who helped organize the screening Monday night. "We're happy they're standing up for us now. We think they should have done more in the first place."

The university released a statement Monday saying that it "respects the right of a free society to offer opinion" while not condoning the movie. But, the statement said, "Discussions on topics such as this are characteristic of a vibrant educational community."

The issue went to the highest levels of the state university system. Chancellor William E. Kirwan conferred Monday and over the weekend with College Park President C.D. Mote Jr., other state university presidents and the state attorney general's office.

Kirwan said that it can be "very harmful" for legislatures to micromanage universities but that he supports the proposal that universities develop a policy on pornography.

"What I respect so much about the language we're hearing now is that the legislature is saying this is something that the board [of regents] should consider," he said. "They have a responsibility to see that universities have policies in place that support the basic mission and purpose of the state university in its use of state dollars."

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties who led the opposition to the film last week, said he backs the compromise language but would be closely monitoring the policy that the university devises.

"They heard loud and clear that that policy probably can't include showing pornography for fun and entertainment," he said. "I am assuming that their policy will make that clear."

If not, Harris said, he would raise the issue in next year's legislative session.

But just as some said that politics got in the way of honest discussion in Annapolis, politics on the campus played a role, too.

Monday's screening was organized by the Student Power Party, which is putting up a slate of candidates for student government offices. It happens that the election is Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We won't be watering anything down in the screening tonight," promised Malcolm Harris, a candidate for student government president, when pressed by reporters on why only 30 minutes of the film would be shown. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of students who want to sit around for a 2 1/2 -hour viewing of pornography on a Monday night."

Sophomore Xenia Strunnikova said, "Just because it's a state school, state legislators shouldn't be telling us what we can and cannot watch."

Baltimore Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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