Freedom To Make Mistakes

Our View: Bullying Student Newspaper Editors About A Sex Column And Grandstanding Against Campus Porn Do Little To Advance The Cause Of Higher Education In Maryland

October 08, 2009

There are any number of good reasons why college students shouldn't spend much time watching screenings of pornographic movies on school property or reading racy sex columns in the school newspaper. But it's not the job of college administrators or state lawmakers to make those decisions for them.

There may indeed be little journalistic value in "The Bed Post," a sex column that appeared in The Towerlight, Towson University's student newspaper. Aside from its questionable taste, it violated many of the standards student publications traditionally are supposed to teach aspiring young reporters and editors, such as the necessity of judging what is worthy of coverage as news and a willingness to stand behind the facts in a story. Unlike the paper's other articles, "The Bed Post" was published under a pseudonym, and many members of the paper's own editorial board had misgivings about the explicit nature of its content.

Likewise, it's hard to find much artistic or educational merit in "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge," the XXX-rated adult film that students planned to show on the University of Maryland-College Park campus in April. The film was hyped as a high production-value effort to bring erotic content into the mainstream. In fact, it turned out to be just another clumsy remake of the usual smut.

But in both cases, it should have been up to the students to come to those conclusions, not have them dictated by lawmakers and university administrators. The first lessons student journalists in a democracy learn should not have to be how to survive under the censor's arbitrary fist.

In the case of the Towerlight, Towson University President Robert L. Caret short-circuited what should have been an internal discussion about the appropriateness of the column by e-mailing a scolding letter to the editor in which he complained that the paper had misjudged its audience by publishing appalling content.

In subsequent correspondence with the paper's editor, who has since resigned, Mr. Caret hinted that the university might even cease advertising in the paper over the matter. That threat forced the newspaper's hand for all practical purposes, because the university accounts for 40 percent of the Towerlight's revenues.

Yet the whole purpose of student publications like Towson's is to train students to become responsible journalists, and for that to happen, they need the experience of learning on their own what is and what isn't appropriate. Heavy-handed intervention doesn't accomplish that.

Similarly, the General Assembly's attempt to impose an official University System of Maryland policy on the display of pornography on campus - perhaps the first such policy in the country - takes the responsibility away from students to decide, as a community, what is and isn't appropriate. The lawmakers' ham-fisted effort to block the screening not only set a bad precedent for future political meddling on campus but actually hurt the university's reputation as a champion of academic and intellectual freedom.

The point of college is for young people to learn critical thinking skills and mature into adults who can make reasoned judgments about complex issues on their own. Inevitably, they will make mistakes, but the hope is that they will learn from them. Bullying student newspaper editors and grandstanding against porn movies on campus may satisfy educators' egos and the political agendas of some delegates and senators in Annapolis, but they do nothing to serve the real purpose of higher education.

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