Md. Balancing Rights, Politics And Porn

October 07, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,

Maryland's public university system is poised to become the first in the country with a policy on student displays of pornographic films, a direct response to legislative demands made after a screening earlier this year of a XXX-rated film at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Though work on the policy is continuing, it has stirred many of the same free-speech concerns that raged when the university briefly quashed student plans to screen the pornographic epic "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge" in April. Many student groups would prefer to have no policy at all, but the system's Board of Regents is likely to vote on a final version before a Dec. 1 deadline set by the state legislature.

"This is a unique situation," said Robert O'Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and a longtime First Amendment scholar who has advised the Maryland attorney general's office during drafting of the policy.

It is also an uncomfortable one for university officials, who are highly sensitive about academic freedom, and for students, who fear that political expediency could trump their freedom to enjoy and discuss controversial entertainment.

"I would love it if they decided that their policy was to have no policy," said Brady Walker, a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore and chair of the university system's umbrella student council. "This is the first of its kind, and for Maryland to be known for something like that is a little troubling. To me, it's a little troubling that politics can have this kind of impact."

The policy will not ban anything, but, as per the legislature's request, probably will require that the showing of pornographic materials be paired with an educational discussion, said P.J. Hogan, the university system's vice chancellor for government relations.

"The legislature is not saying you must ban the display of obscene films," said Hogan, a former state senator. "It's saying you can't use university facilities to show them strictly for entertainment purposes. You can show it and then make it an opportunity to talk about free speech and pornography. That keeps it in the realm of higher education."

Hogan said discussions around the "Pirates II" screening were examples of how the process should work.

As they develop guidelines, university officials are working without a road map from other states or specific instructions from the legislature.

"To be frank, when this all happened, we thought we could look around the country at other universities, find a policy and tailor it to our needs," Hogan said. "To our amazement, we couldn't find one. So that has left us dealing with much larger questions of the First Amendment and free speech, which are much more difficult than one might think."

System leaders have to craft something that will satisfy politicians on one side but stand up to legal challenges from students and free-speech groups on the other.

"I don't think the policy can be to not have a policy," O'Neil said. "But beyond that, the legislative mandate doesn't seem to envision a particular kind of policy."

It is not clear what the policy will do, but many interested parties are waiting to see how far it will go.

State Sen. Andy Harris, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, was the staunchest political opponent of the "Pirates II" screening. He wants the system to prevent university-subsidized displays of pornography outside of course settings.

"If they come up with a policy that would allow the use of taxpayer money to show pornography for entertainment, I think that's not appropriate," Harris said. "I believe they will come up with a reasonable policy, but if they don't, the legislature meets again in a few months."

He said student groups have every right to rent their own spaces to show pornography for entertainment. He also sees a place for academic study of XXX-rated films, saying that he doesn't see them as art but others might.

Amid uproar over the scheduled screening of "Pirates II" in April, Harris tried unsuccessfully to amend the state budget so that public universities could not access their funding unless they developed a pornography policy by July 1. The General Assembly ultimately passed a resolution telling the university system to come up with a policy by Sept. 1. The system requested and received an extension to Dec. 1 because of the complexity of the issue.

Harris said that in the months since the initial dispute, he has received consistently positive feedback on his stance.

"The taxpayers have told me they're very happy that someone is standing up for them," he said.

Harris seemed surprised that the situation hasn't arisen in other states.

"I'm glad Maryland is taking leadership on this issue," he said.

Several free-speech groups are working with students to fight the policy.

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