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Discussion Excerpts: Pornography, Academia and Free Speech

The University of Maryland and some legislators in the Maryland General Assembly appear to be on a collision course regarding the on-campus screening of a pornographic film. American University associate professor John Watson, who opposes the censorship, and Aaron Titus, spokesperson for the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography, debated the topic this afternoon in a discussion. Excerpts follow. Click here for the full transcript.

Ferndale, Md.: First amendment theories aside, aren't there permits required for theaters that choose to show material like this? You can't just build a theater that will show porn. There are rules. I would think PG County probably has some zoning regulations to this affect, and those rules would still apply on College Park, wouldn't they?

Aaron Titus: First, it's important to understand that obscenity is not protected by the first amendment. But in theory, if this particular material were protected by the First Amendment, yes, State actors can impose reasonable "Time, Place, and Manner" restrictions on otherwise Constitutionally protected speech. These may include reasonable zoning ordinances you describe.

One interesting, but unexplored issue is that possession of pornography with the intention to distribute is criminal offense in Maryland: Maryland Criminal Law �11-202. As a political matter, I doubt Maryland's AG will prosecute.

John Watson: I think the Maryland law outlaws obscenity and not mere pornography. Pornography, as some people forget, is protected by the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment.

Maryland: If a student's group wanted to show a film denying the Holocaust or taking a pro-Nazi viewpoint, would the same students be crying "Free Speech?" Or does Free Speech only apply when the film is something you personally don't find offensive?

In this case, the students are defending a type of film that degrades women by making them into sex objects for use by men.

John Watson: As hard as it may be to believe right now, a pro-Nazi film should get an even greater amount of First Amendment protection than this porn film. The First Amendment exists only to protect unpopular speech... the popular ideas don't need any protection. It's those that we despise that must be protected. Not because we like those ideas, but because, among other things, we realize that at some point, we too, will have unpopular ideas to express and would or should want to keep that option open.

Aaron Titus: As a matter of law, I agree with John that a pro-Nazi film should get an even greater amount of First Amendment protection, because it is "political speech," which the government must show a compelling state interest and a narrowly tailored solution in order to regulate.

However, it doesn't change the fact that Obscenity, which a XXX porn movie is clearly, is not protected by the first amendment. The government can (and should) put any type of reasonable regulation on it, including censorship.

Most pornography is not speech protected by the Constitution. Therefore, screening this film constitutes an abuse rather than an exercise of Constitutional rights. Pornography's documented cycle of addiction, escalation, desensitization, and resulting acts are more closely analogous to drug use than protected speech.

Herndon, Va.: Here's the typical conundrum I see with restricting pornography with respect to men -- men often use pornography because they can watch sexual acts that their wives/girlfriends will not do or not do as often as they might like. Without pornography, the other avenues to satisfy these desires would be adultery, infidelity and prostitution. All of these seem to be worse alternatives for society than porn where the participants are paid fairly well considering the "work" performed. It seems like putting restrictions on this type of speech creates more problems than it solves. How does stopping pornography halt the natural urges that exist within us? Seems to me it doesn't, it only changes the means to satisfy them.

Aaron Titus: You make the moral argument that pornography provides an important sexual release for men. However, the scientific studies of which I am aware demonstrate just the opposite. Much like a drug, pornography has a tendency to create a cycle of addiction, escalation, escalation, desensitization, and resulting acts. Far from "supplementing" a health sex life, pornography distorts, escalates, and twists healthy sexual relationships and attitudes in ways that are universally negative. For example,

Mary Anne Layden, Ph D has documented many of the extensive harms of pornography exposure. Exposure to "massive pornography" leads to changes in beliefs and attitudes. For example, reduced support for the women's liberation movement, reduced belief that pornography needs to be restricted for minors, reduced recommended jail sentences for rapists, increased callousness toward woman, and beliefs of increased frequency of pathological sex (such as sex with animals, and sex with violence).

John Watson: I know of studies that make some of the same connections to drinking beer. Children should not drink beer. Adults should may do so in moderation if they want to. The U.S. Constitution was twisted for a short time to deny alcohol to those adults who wanted it. The First Amendment was used to untwist it. The First Amendment does not protect beer, although it does protect beer commercials.

Annapolis, Md.: I agree with Mr. Titus that there are several overlapping issues in this case.

It seems to me that the most compelling conflict is that between the freedom for students and faculty to undertake academic inquiry which is essential for a university, and the interest of the state in regulating speech and conduct. If the state of Maryland wants to have a world-class university, it has to accept and protect academic freedom, even at the cost of tolerating some unsavory applications of it.

I think the second compelling issue is whether a single legislator is fitly discharging his or her duties if he or she threatens funding for an agency on the basis of operational decisions.

A third compelling issue, much lower down the scale and in some ways a corollary to the first, is what oversight role should be played by faculty and administrators at any institution, public or private, in regulating (a) legitimate academic inquiry and (b) other kinds of speech and activity by students.

Unfortunately, many of these issues get reduced to the titillating one of "Porn on campus! Woo!" Thanks for trying to focus soberly on the issues.

John Watson: This is an excellent argument. I just want to add that not everything that occurs on campus is educational. Sometimes it is just fun because there are people there who want to have fun. These people usually grow up and continue to want to have fun. At college they need teachable moments like these in which they learn about the limitations on the government to restrict their fun.

Arlington, Va.: From what I understand the Student Union is showing the film with funding provided by selling tickets to students who wish to watch it. Therefore, no state funding is involved in showing this film. Therefore, for the Maryland state legislature to get involved in trying to stop the viewing of this film essentially make this the same fight over free speech that the Supreme Court ruled in Stanley v. Georgia to be protected by both the 1st and 14th Amendments?

Aaron Titus: I think I made this point earlier, but where an academic institution fails in its responsibility to conduct a thorough academic inquiry into the harms of pornography, the legislature may appropriately intervene.

John Watson: No! No! No! The number of academic inquiries that have been fully completed can be counted on the thumbs of one hand. Academic inquiry never ends. Are we to wait? No! No! NO! This is a blank check for the government (sometimes known as politicians) to intervene in academia.

St. Mary's City, Md.: I find the addiction arguments to be questionable at best, partly because the Supreme Court rulings on the matter largely predate that argument. The Court's "prurient interest" standard implies that it's wrong to expose people to entertainment that may arouse them, which sounds like a moral belief disguised as a legal argument.

If there is such a thing as addiction to pornography, it's most likely a symptom of deeper personality issues that were already there before the person turned to the material. It's ridiculous to compare the material to drugs that are chemically addictive. Again, if the addiction exists, a better comparison would be gambling, except that laws against gambling are justified because they involve actual harm, specifically theft through deception.

In my experience, the vast majority of the addiction arguments come from religious people who believe in a universal obligation to reproduce, people who argue that self-pleasure is inherently immoral and sinful. That doesn't qualify as a basis for making law. Let those who have a free hand cast the first stone.

Aaron Titus: I think this comment is a great example of someone who would deny the public discourse of the several interrelated dimensions. I am suspicious of anyone who would attempt to limit the public discourse by stripping it of one of these fields: They include, as a minimum: Moral, Spiritual, Cultural & Societal, Scientific, Political, and Legal.

Despite a 200-year tradition of morals legislation in the United States, St. Mary's City apparently rejects this notion. While I appreciate that some people might be uncomfortable with a public discussion which includes the very real forces of morality, spirituality, and even religion, I think it is disingenuous to dismiss all of the other cultural, societal, scientific, political, and legal arguments against pornography as religious hogwash.

One reason proponents of obscenity are so successful is because they have been able to define the terms of the debate and strip several legitimate dimensions from the public discourse. Right now the pornography debate is about free speech versus moral censorship, which is (admittedly) not a politically winnable debate.

By Christopher Dean Hopkins  |  April 6, 2009; 4:05 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly  
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Where does this Aaron Titus get his "facts" about pornography? Because they do not seem like "facts" to me. Let us take just one arguement - that sexually explicit films demean women (I do not believe this but apparently this old arguement is one that Mr. Titus still holds) - how about the campus showing gay adult films, films in which men have sex with other men. Since it is impossible for those films to deman women, to enforce any kind of attitude towards women, gay adult films should then be allowed.

Mr. Titus' arguements that pornography is bad, that it should be compared to drug addiction (Actually drugs should be legal also but that is another arguement), that it leads to other acts (sex with violence - I don't think it does but if two consenting adults want to whip each other during sex where is it any of Mr. Titus business?) are completely unsubstatiated garbage.

Mr. Titus is a prude. He can hold his opinions but he should keep them to himself. It is absolutely no business of his what I watch or do or say. So, Mr. Titus, SHUT UP!

Posted by: nyrunner101 | April 6, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

You don’t need facts in modern day argument about porn...or anything sexually related. Just lie indiscriminately and that is good enough.

The moral religious people will gladly break their own commandments lying to win a morality fight over porn, prostitution, or anything they deem "immoral".

Porn is on unstable ground right now. If a law were passed against porn, the justices, today, after Bush's politically rigging of the judiciary, would uphold such a law.

Posted by: Libertarian1 | April 6, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

And by the way, no news website has more daily soft porn links than Foxnews in its celebrity section. Everyday!!

Posted by: Libertarian1 | April 6, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Titus: Well, I suspicious of people who make things up. I challenge you to present a recent legal decision in Maryland that indicates that XXX pornography is considered obscene by local community standards. Montgomery County has tried, and failed, to shut down adult video rental stores.

Posted by: guez | April 6, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Aaron Titus: "I think I made this point earlier, but where an academic institution fails in its responsibility to conduct a thorough academic inquiry into the harms of pornography, the legislature may appropriately intervene."

Hang on: are you saying that the legislature gets to decide what good scholarship is? Explain to me how that isn't an restriction of academic freedom.

Posted by: guez | April 6, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Didn't Edwin Neese, the former AG under Reagan, already waste millions of our tax dollars trying to take away our right to free speech in the 1980s by attempting to connect crime and "the harms" of pornography to society? Pretty sure he did. The results were "inconclusive". But I guess that is another fact they will willfully ignore in an attempt to make the same mistake all over again.

Posted by: Libertarian1 | April 6, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice for WaPo to bother to tell us who Aaron Titus is and what his scholarly credentials are to pontificate. His claims about studies relating to pornography are flatly inconsistent with the commentaries in textbooks I use in teaching a First Amendment class. The fact is Meese did waste a ton of taxpayer money on a religious right obsession with trying to prove the harms of pornography and ultimately failed to do so. That right-wing religious fascists and left-wing feminist fascists don't like pornography doesn't mean the harms they woould like to exist do actually exist.

Posted by: uh_huhh | April 6, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Those pornography studies are like the ones that show that some lab rats get cancer from eating a metric ton of saccharine. So inflammatory, so irrelevant.

Posted by: godlesspriest | April 6, 2009 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Innocent people get shot with guns. That's the price of the Second Amendment. But that doesn't justify restrictions on gun ownership inconsistent with the 2nd A. Because the _highest_ law of the land is the Constitution.

I don't care if porn makes you blind, gives you hair on your palms, makes you antisocial, violent or violently antisocial. As long it is not obscene (and there IS a difference), it is protected by the First Amendment, and any consequences are the price of having a Constitution that features a First Amendment. All the boogeymen Mr. Titus can drag up cannot change that fact. You want to change the First Amendment, have at it. if you have the facts on your side, people will agree with you (and I'll move). Till then, deal with it.

And Mr. Titus, if you have to knowingly lie to make your case, your case isn't worth making. Obscenity is not protected, but XXX porn is _not_ necessarily obscene. Matter of fact, most of it is not legally obscene.

Posted by: gbooksdc | April 6, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

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