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Posted at 11:35 AM ET, 09/ 9/2009

WHY IT MATTERS: Porn Movie Tests University Leaders

By Valerie Strauss

The Answer Sheet bets that setting policy about pornographic movies is not the first thing you would think higher education administrators would be wrestling with at the start of a new year.

But at the University of Maryland at College Park, that’s what is facing the administration of President C.D. Mote. Here’s why:

Last spring, the student programming committee scheduled a triple X-rated movie called “Pirates 2: Stagnetti’s Revene” to screen in a popular theater on campus after a discussion led by Planned Parenthood on safe sex.

The movie cost $10 million to make and has been marketed by the company Digital Playground to numerous colleges. It has been shown on several campuses (including UCLA and Carnegie Mellon University), often with an educational component.

But once word got out at College Park, the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, State Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) threatened to block $424 million in state funds to the university. He said porn movies should not be shown at a public university, rejecting arguments that the issue was one of free speech. The movie, by the way, was obtained without school funds.

Mote first cancelled the movie, which was obtained for screeing without school funds. Then he allowed excerpts to be shown after a discussion on free speech.

Legislators withdrew the funding threat but decided to require a report from the university about its policy on displaying or screening porn movies. Since the school had no policy, it was supposed to present one by this month.

College Park officials decided to get input from faculty and students, according to the student newspaper The Diamondback, and won a stay of policy formation until December.

This is one of those controversies that makes you want to cringe for both sides.

Why, one wonders, would anyone think that a discussion on safe sex would be enhanced by watching a porn movie?

It also reasonable to ask why legislators think they should micromanage movie selections at a university--all depending on the morals of individual representatives--when really serious issues demand attention.

The university now faces a decision more important than whether College Park students should be able to see one pornographic pirate get revenge on another.

The battle cry on campus in support of the screening was free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. There is also the question of how one defines pornography, as in one person’s porn is another’s art, though surely we can all agree that a triple X flick would not object to being placed in the pornographic category.

Lawyers who are expert in the Constitution tell me that pornography is not actually protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Still, an institution of higher education has broader considerations than what is admissible in court. Schools are supposed to be places of unlimited inquiry, where even the ugliest ideas and images are seen and discussed.

Administrators need to keep that first and foremost in mind as they develop a policy on pornographic movies at College Park. It may not be easy to take a principled stand that could bring about a loss of state funds. But allowing legislators to dictate this kind of policy will bastardize the mission of the university far faster than a porn movie, however vile, ever could.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 9, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education, University of Maryland  | Tags:  Maryland legislature, college park, free speech, higher education, pornography, university of maryland  
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Comments

It's easy to recommend a principled stand that comports with one's own politics. If the students were proposing to show a racist film, I wonder if the Post would be defending them on principle.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 9, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

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