Pornographic Movies at the University of Maryland: Freedom of Speech and Other Issues
–Richard E. Vatz
The bare facts of the University of Maryland (UMd) porn kerfuffle are as follows: the university had ratified a student programming committee’s decision to show a porn flick, “Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, “ in College Park’s student union. Maryland Sen. Andy Harris threatened — and was supported by Democratic Senate President Mike Miller — to include in the state budget, as summarized by THE BALTIMORE SUN, “a denial of funding to any institution of higher education that allows a public screening of a film marketed as XXX-rated, unless it is part of an academic course.” The university acceded to the threat, but then some students, again in the words of the SUN, “reserved an on-campus facility to show the film.” Sen. Harris reinstated his threat to withhold funding, and, of this writing on April 6, that is where the controversy stands.
This article takes no position on the merits of the movie or the effects of seeing the movie, but argues that some of the protagonists clearly are making some unimpressive points about responsible legislation and some indisputably fallacious arguments regarding the issue of freedom of speech.
Sen. Jamie Raskin in THE WASHINGTON POST speculates on how “pornographers and censors thrive on one another,” arguing that Sen. Harris’ action gains publicity for pornographers. True, except for the implication that such legislative intrusion ONLY gains publicity for pornographers. The fact is that such action may also send a message that the people of Maryland will not stand by while their financial support is used to countenance pornography.
Students concerned about the axing of the movie violating their right of free speech may be surprised to learn the following: while the Constitution prohibits the United States Congress from making laws infringing on freedom of speech (with many exceptions), the freedom to show pornographic films in venues financed by a state-related university is not Constitutionally guaranteed.
Additionally, opponents of the state action commit the slippery slope fallacy in assuming that successful legislative pressuring of UMd on the current matter will inexorably lead to more intrusion into university activities. There is no evidence that such further action is being contemplated. Moreover, there is no evidence that any such effort is part of a larger agenda.
Now, there was a reasonable objection to the Senate bill proposal in terms of proportionality. The provocation of showing pornography does not merit the withholding, even temporarily, of hundreds of millions of dollars. That not only violates the principle of making the “punishment fit the crime,” but it also invokes the specter of collective punishment, punishing thousands of innocent students, faculty, administrators and staff, who have no power over decision-making regarding the showing of the movie on campus.
On the other hand, students whose only stand concerning freedom of speech is to protect the showing of pornographic movies are not serious and are using the “freedom of speech” argument disingenuously.
Professor Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University