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Campus Sex Shows: U.-Md. Panics Where W&M Stood Tall

Bulletin: College kids like sex. Bigger bulletin: College kids like to outrage their elders. Super-bonus bulletin: Some adults know how to deal with this, and some do not.

At the University of Maryland yesterday, the school's top brass faced a classic test of their allegiance to the ideals of open inquiry, freedom of speech and academic independence. They flunked big time. When state legislators got wind that the theater at the student union in College Park was selling tickets to a showing of a porn flick titled "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge," conservatives in Annapolis saw a dandy weapon to wield against those libertines of academia. The lawmakers huffed and they puffed and they threatened to take away all $424 million of the university's state money and make the college sit in the corner.

So what did UM president C.D. Mote Jr. do? He caved, completely. Canceled the movie. His vice president for student affairs, Linda Clement, even told reporters that the college was ok with the legislators interceding: "I think state legislators have the right to weigh in on many, many issues regarding state agencies," she told the Baltimore Sun.

The movie looks to be totally lame -- judge for yourself with the all-too-safe-for-work trailer -- but that's hardly the point. Craven caving to lawmakers who have no business poking around in a college's daily operations is the issue.

And for a look at how to handle this sort of seamy business in a classy and intellectually honest fashion, you need only cast your eyes across the Potomac and south a couple of hours, to the College of William & Mary, another state institution in what is generally assumed to be a far more reactionary state than Maryland. Yet here, college president Taylor Reveley decided to let an annual Sex Workers Art Show--a student-sponsored live show of strippers, prostitutes and other such characters doing their thing and talking about why they do it--go on, despite vehement opposition from some politicians, alumni, donors and conservative commentators.

Reveley clearly didn't like the show and made that plain, but in a statement to the college community, he stood tall for what he called "the Jeffersonian notion that the free play of ideas is the best route to truth." Just as he had defended the right of a white supremacist to speak on campus--he also insisted that the speaker not get "a free kick;" that is, that his appearance must include an open and freewheeling debate--he now said that the sex show was free to proceed. Here, too, the university sponsored an open forum for folks of all ideologies to debate the content and wisdom of the sex show.

Reveley's decision was even braver than it may first appear; it was in part the controversy over the sex show that had led to the ugly departure of his predecessor, Gene Nichol, just last year.

But Reveley used his office as a bully pulpit, pushing organizers of the sex show to open themselves to criticism, just as he urged those who found the show degrading to step forward and make themselves heard. Organizers of the sex show "need to provide means for a serious discussion about pertinent issues, conducted with the intellectual rigor and civility characteristic of William & Mary," the college president said.

Reveley said that's simply the William & Mary way: "We let this process run its course, even when it results in controversy, rather than try to play the censor. As most efforts at censorship have shown, they're hard to run - endless lines must be drawn in the sand, many controversies must be waged, and a lot of energy gets diverted from matters of greater importance. For practical as well as philosophical reasons, I will not play the censor."

Too bad the folks in Maryland didn't have half that understanding of the business they're in.

By Marc Fisher |  April 3, 2009; 7:24 AM ET
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Comments

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Mote is motivated by one and only one thing: MONEY. This is what the modern university values. Money. Money. Money.

Posted by: confused1 | April 3, 2009 8:47 AM

The funny thing is that most of the college students as well as a good majority of the MD state lawmakers are going to go out and watch this movie on their own. More so than the number that would have watched it in the theater.

Posted by: k-gotham | April 3, 2009 9:29 AM

"...in what is generally assumed to be a far more reactionary state than Maryland."

can someone back that up?

Posted by: millionea7 | April 3, 2009 9:36 AM

millionea7:

It's just Fisher, looking for his "sizzle" and showing his biases. Ignore it.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | April 3, 2009 9:51 AM

"can someone back that up?"

Yeah I didn't really get the "reactionary" comment either. If anything, I'd think the opposite to be true. Then again, I'm likely biased b/c I'm a Virginian.

Posted by: VTDuffman | April 3, 2009 9:52 AM

Once again in Maryland censorship is alive and well. Big Brother knows better or should I say in Maryland Big Sister knows better.

Posted by: Brian_in_VA | April 3, 2009 10:15 AM

As a college professor, I acknowledge the importance of the "ideals of open inquiry, freedom of speech and academic independence." Open inquiry permits the extensive and unbiased examination of a topic for the purpose of academic research. In the course of such research it is sometimes necessary to delve into ugly subjects and offensive material that would, in other circumstances, violate the moral and ethical standards of the community and society in which we live. The authority to conduct such explorations is coupled with the responsibility to use sound and mature judgment in the manner with which the investigations are to be carried out.

Too often, however, academic freedom is perverted (mainly by non-academics) into a license to engage in pointless and questionable explorations or practices. It is not intended to give young adults blanket permission to satisfy an appetite for sex-related material. Education is intended to enlighten man, not to give one the excuse to do whatever one wishes.

The University of Maryland deserves praise for not encouraging its students to elevate primal urges over reason. Such an elevation is not consistent with the University's charter, nor is it the purpose of education. Remember Nietzsche's warning: "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Don't we have enough monsters in our society already?

Posted by: Maximilian2 | April 3, 2009 10:20 AM

"The University of Maryland deserves praise for not encouraging its students to elevate primal urges over reason."

Maximillan2: I think you totally missed the point. U of M caved because their funding was threatened. For no other reason. Thanks for your dissertation but all they care about is $$$$$$$$$$.

Posted by: xxx1 | April 3, 2009 10:38 AM

People in the sex business are not worse than the ones on Wall Street! I'm sorry, I did not mean to insult the sex people.

Posted by: johng1 | April 3, 2009 10:53 AM

Maximilian2: Your position is as outrageous as it is dangerous. Who will be the arbitor of what is acceptable and what isn't? What makes one thing acceptable when another isn't? People's opinion differs. While you no doubt think your arbitrary line helps protect people from the "monsters," censors think their arbitrary line protects people too.

I suggest you reread the constitution, which doesn't talk about academic freedom, but freedom of speech. Yes, the state has the right to take away fundering from the University. But is that really something we want as a society? What if it's not a porno, but a book called Huckleberry Finn? That's just another arbitrary line.

Posted by: thegreatlefkowitz | April 3, 2009 11:12 AM

"But is that really something we want as a society? What if it's not a porno, but a book called Huckleberry Finn? That's just another arbitrary line."

Yeah, he also makes the failed assertion that University Facilities can only be used for things that he considers "Education." Because, you know, I'm sure they've never shown "Tommy Boy" or "Super Troopers" in that theatre.

It's classic American Puritanism "Sex is bad, let's pretend it doesn't exist."

Also, there's two versions of that "Pirates II" movie. Although I haven't heard either way, I'm guessing they were showing the R-Rated Version and not the XXX version. Which, if it's the case, makes this discussion even more silly.

Posted by: VTDuffman | April 3, 2009 11:26 AM

There have certainly been many efforts to censorship in our country, whether it be ridiculous prudish busybodies trying to get Lady Chatterly's Lover or Lolita removed from library shelves or these dangerously small minded and anti-American elected officials getting their way with money. Every one of them who voted for that bill should be removed from office for violating the US Constitution. These are no different from any other petty little tyrants who get their way through ignorance and force rather than through intelligence. If they want to live in a theocracy, the Vatican, or Iran, are available - we are not a Puritan society, although it is hard to remember that after reading about this type of un-Constitutional censorship. These are the same folks who damn the ACLU, but it is a shame they are allowed to represent Maryland - they make a mockery of our nation with their "naughty little boy" minds. This is all about that one guy with the daughter in college - guess what buddy, she has no doubt already seen worse, and perhaps even engaged in some of it. There is nothing like a repressed parent to create a libertine child. Parents who are willing to encourage their childrens' access to all kinds of information and then let THEM decide what they think is good and what is not are much more likely to end up with daughters (and sons, of course) who make good decisions - not only about sex and movies, but about everything in life.

Posted by: rmcdetal | April 3, 2009 11:40 AM

Pick your battles. Is porn worth raising tuition to cover what would be lost if the University lost funding??? This is such a non story.

Posted by: glt1979 | April 3, 2009 11:44 AM

I want to know if the legislature would have actually gone through with it if the university didn't back down. Would they have thrown many student's educations into risk.

Posted by: adbspam | April 3, 2009 12:34 PM

Really, this is too much. W&M showed principle by permitting pornography, but U. Md. "caved?" How about this: U. Md. called it what it is, and said "not here." I am no Md. fan or alumnus, and in fact am a lifelong Va. resident. I'm sorry to see W&M get mired in this filth and kid itself with the notion that it's somehow "open minded and educational." If that's the case, where does one draw the line at what is proper and not?
Sometimes, Mr. Fisher, somebody has to stand up and be the adult in the room. It's clear that there aren't any at W&M.
Maximillian2 has it right.

Posted by: hoonu76 | April 3, 2009 12:34 PM

"If that's the case, where does one draw the line at what is proper and not?
Sometimes, Mr. Fisher, somebody has to stand up and be the adult in the room. It's clear that there aren't any at W&M.
Maximillian2 has it right."

The part where you're wrong is the part where you conflate sticking your fingers in your ears and pretending that icky sex doesn't exist means you're an "Adult."

Adults can handle this kind of stuff without freaking out.

This theatre has shown movies full of content involving drugs, violence (likely extreme violence), profanity, etc...but Sex? FREAK OUT FREAK OUT OMG FREAK OUT OMG OMG OMG.

And then you're going to try and turn around and tell me *you're* the adult? The adult thing to do would be to, if you have no desire to see this movie, don't buy a ticket to go see the movie.

"Adults" like you are the reason why broadcast media has been censored to the point of absurdity, because it's too much trouble for you to change the channel or do something else...so you do the Adult thing and whine about it as loudly as possible to anyone who will listen and demand that mommy government fix everything for you.

I can only hope to someday be as "Adult" as that.

Posted by: VTDuffman | April 3, 2009 1:13 PM

I'm not sure where I stand on this. But as an alumni, the visceral reaction I have is: 'this is what my donations are going to?' Yes I know it's technically not coming from donations or the school's funds etc, but showing it at the Hoff to me means the University implicitly supports the showing.

I don't see how showing the movie could possibly contribute to the mission of the University, but that may not matter.

My question to Marc Fisher and those against censoring the movie is this: What film should not be shown at the Hoff? Any?

I think everyone would say there is at least one film/show/etc inappropriate to screen. So isn't this always going to be a line-drawing exercise?

I'd say not showing hard core porn is a reasonable line to draw.

Posted by: accgrad | April 3, 2009 1:41 PM

As a student at the University of Maryland for over 7 years now (undergraduate and graduate), I was outraged to find out that an x-rated movie was going to be shown on campus. X-rated movies are degrading toward women. I would not want to be an alumna from a school that would promote this kind of attitude. Had the University not been threatened by the State Legislature, I would have written a letter of complaint to C.D. Mote myself. I know of plenty other people who would have done the same.

As for the comments about censorship and freedom of speech, the freedoms and rights that this country is based on are very important, but the biggest thing that should not be forgotten is that these freedoms and rights are guaranteed so long as they do not interfere with another person's rights. I find that showing this film on my campus interferes the fundamental right of women to be treated with the dignity that every person deserves.

Posted by: cikeda | April 3, 2009 2:14 PM

"This theatre has shown movies full of content involving drugs, violence (likely extreme violence), profanity, etc...but Sex? FREAK OUT FREAK OUT OMG FREAK OUT OMG OMG OMG."

None of the above promote a healthy society, however, you can not deny how far we've let the sexual liberation movement permeate our society without addressing its negative effects.

Posted by: cprferry | April 3, 2009 2:23 PM

"None of the above promote a healthy society, however, you can not deny how far we've let the sexual liberation movement permeate our society without addressing its negative effects."

Where did I say we should not address that? We should totally address that, we should address everything, that's the point. You can't "address" something if you pretend it doesn't exist.

"I find that showing this film on my campus interferes the fundamental right of women to be treated with the dignity that every person deserves."

You don't have a right to not be offended.

"I'd say not showing hard core porn is a reasonable line to draw."

Again, there are two versions of this movie, one of them is rated "R" and available on Netflix. Do you know for a fact that it was the "Hard Core" version that they were going to show? If so, I'd love to see a link.

I don't think anyone in their right mind would even try to get an X-Rated movie played on campus, and that everyone is freaking out about an R rated movie, which would be really silly.

Posted by: VTDuffman | April 3, 2009 2:40 PM

As a graduate of W&M, I was proud to see that it continues to be a bastion of free thinking and free debate.

In the early 1980s, we showed an Xrated film as part of the student film series, a film that the US government officially objected to (Missing), regularly debated with itinerant preachers, gay rights and antigay rights advocates, politics, culture and just about everything else.

Go Tribe!

Kevin Mark Wray Class of 1986

Posted by: kmwray | April 3, 2009 3:57 PM

The idea that porn is some sort of "speech" is utterly ridiculous. It's not "speech," it's people being paid to have sex in front of a camera. I believe the term used when someone is paid to have sex is "prostitution." All of you on your high horse claiming that the action by the Assembly are "stifling free speech," need to take a chill pill, please. This is not "stifling free speech," but preventing an obscene film from being shown in public. So many have given up so much to preserve our true liberties and rights, that it is insulting to Frankly it is insulting to believe that the struggle for liberty is so that you are free to watch people have sex in a public theater.

Posted by: octopi213 | April 3, 2009 4:57 PM

VTDuffman, see this link from April 1 Baltimore Sun: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/local/bal-movie0401,0,2728185.story The 8th paragraph down says, "An R-rated version of the film is also available, but Maryland chose to screen the XXX version because it would generate greater student interest, Cunningham said."

Posted by: cikeda | April 3, 2009 7:26 PM

"Mote is motivated by one and only one thing: MONEY. This is what the modern university values. Money. Money. Money."

Agreed. As a grad student at UMD I know this as well as anyone. I can't complain anymore though, since that money is being used to pay for my stipend.

Posted by: jboogie1 | April 3, 2009 7:46 PM

-"This is not 'stifling free speech,' but preventing an obscene film from being shown in public"

You might think so, but the US Supreme Court disagrees with far smarter people than you in regard to the matter.

Posted by: jboogie1 | April 3, 2009 7:54 PM

I did my graduate studies at UMd., and I can tell you there is an adult video store less than a mile from campus. If the kids want to see porn, then can hold a pop-porn party in the dorm and watch whatever they want. The issue here is about a public screening, not about students' rights to consume whatever trash they want to, within legal limits, of course.

When I studied at UVA in the 80s, you could go to the school library's film collection and watch Last Tango In Paris...right in a cubicle in the library. That's different from putting porn in the public theater.

Posted by: rickyDN | April 4, 2009 2:08 AM

Many people seem to have missed the major point here. This is not about obscenity or freedom of speech per se; this turns fundamentally on the issue of academic freedom. Not the freedom to show porn, but the freedom of the academy to dictate its own standards, rules, and, ultimately, its curriculum and the academic freedom of its intelligentsia.

The Maryland legislature has decided that it knows better than the regents of the University how to administer the school. This really is the proverbial "slippery slope"--we saw its nasty repercussions in Boulder, CO, with the firing of Churchill.

Academic freedom is essentially the freedom to hold opinions and investigate objects that may be repugnant to others. Knowledge cannot be advanced otherwise.

This has very little to do with pornography and everything to do with control over ideas and institutions.

Posted by: vivzig | April 5, 2009 12:37 AM

"This is not about obscenity or freedom of speech per se; this turns fundamentally on the issue of academic freedom."

What's academic about porn? There were to be no academic discussions, no presentations, only a short talk about safe sex practices. The theatre wasn't trying to show porn appropriately, but simply to show porn itself.

Posted by: cprferry | April 5, 2009 9:14 AM

While it was nice of W&M to sponsor a talk, the organizers of the show did not need any "pushing." From the beginning we intended to have forums, and we did. In addition, a Q&A after the show is standard for the SWAS.

Additionally, to praise Reveley for not censoring the show is a bit silly, as the College still managed to censor the content of the show, although they "let" it come on campus.

Finally, calling the Sex Workers' Art Show a "sex show" is inaccurate and disingenuous. No sex occurs on stage. If you must find a two word phrase to describe it, "art show" will do just fine.

Posted by: Zookerlicious | April 8, 2009 11:07 AM

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