U-Md to Set Campus Screening Policy for ‘Obscene’ Flicks

COLLEGE PARK, Md.—The Maryland state university system is under orders from state legislators to establish policies regarding the screening of adult movies on campus. Once completed, the policies will be the only ones of their kind in the nation regulating the viewing of otherwise legal entertainment on a college campus.

According to the Washington Post, “State-funded universities have until Dec. 1 to write and submit policies on ‘the displaying or screening of obscene films and materials,’ according to language added to the state operating budget in April.”

The mandate comes after an incident in April when legislators intervened in the scheduled campus screening of Digital Playground’s Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge.

Predictably, the move to decide for students and faculty what they can assign and watch has opened its own Pandora’s box of controversy.

"I would love it if they decided that their policy was to have no policy," Brady Walker, a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore and chair of the university system's umbrella student council, told the Baltimore Sun. "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."

"We don't want a policy in the first place," Joel Cohen, a U-Md. senior and spokesman for the student government, told the Post. "For the 500-plus student groups on this campus that show movies, have entertainment events ... anything on the campus could be affected."

University educators find themselves in a bind. At least one legislator wanted to deny state operating funds to the university if administrators allowed a full screening of Pirates II in April, but setting too strict a policy will surely invite increased scrutiny by free speech groups as well as students and possibly reflect poorly on the university system as a whole.

"We didn't ask for this, okay? This was forced upon us," P.J. Hogan, vice chancellor for government relations, said, adding, "The legislature is not saying [we] must ban the display of obscene films. 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."

Actually, in using the term ”obscene” to define the type of material it wants regulated, the legislature is strangely confused about what it is saying, a semantic error that could cause legal problems for the university down the line.

Pirates II; Stagnetti’s Revenge, for instance, is not legally obscene, though it is sexually explicit. Only a jury or panel convened for the purpose of adjudicating an obscenity charge brought in a court of law can make that determination. Unless and until that happens, any material in question is legal and entitled to First Amendment protection.

Despite that confusion, at least one Maryland legislator is serious about the drive to set campus standards. State Sen. Andy Harris, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, was a staunch opponent of the Pirates II screening and wants the system to prevent university-subsidized displays of pornography outside of course work.

“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.”