- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

The University of Maryland is seeking help from the state’s attorney general to curb the use of vulgar chants by fans at the games of the school’s men’s basketball team.

The university’s chief counsel, Terry Roach, said yesterday he will discuss with Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. steps the school can take to stop the chants that have embarrassed and upset school officials.

Those officials say school policy prevents them from stopping fans from screaming expletives at opposing teams or wearing T-shirts that bear vulgar slogans because those actions are protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

“A lot of people feel strongly about it,” Mr. Roach said. “We’re looking at it again.”

The profanity during games at Comcast Center has been worsening in recent seasons. An incident at last week’s game between the Terrapins and the No. 1-ranked Duke Blue Devils particularly angered school officials and prompted them to reconsider the school’s policy.

During the game, a sustained, vulgar chant was directed by Maryland students at Duke guard J.J. Redick and was clearly audible throughout the arena and by viewers of the ESPN broadcast. Students also wore T-shirts and carried signs that bore vulgar slogans directed at Duke.

Terrapins coach Gary Williams yesterday criticized the students’ behavior.

“It’s a shame because there’s kids at the games,” Mr. Williams said. “You get 10-, 12-year-old kids you’re trying to teach certain things, and then that happens. It’s not right. I don’t care what the laws are. That’s not right.

“We won a national championship here. We don’t need that to help our program. Those people have to grow up. They’re not our best fans, the people that chant that or wore the T-shirts.”

In the past, the state’s attorney general has ruled that the students’ behavior is protected by the First Amendment.

Mr. Roach cited the 1971 Supreme Court case Cohen v. California, in which a man wearing a T-shirt bearing a vulgar statement opposing the draft was not guilty of lewd, vulgar or profane conduct and was protected under free speech. That ruling applies to the students’ conduct at games, Mr. Roach said.

“It’s vulgar, but not obscene in constitutional form,” Mr. Roach said. “If it’s a protected speech, does the institution censor it? Comcast [traditionally is full] of people hollering and chanting at the other team. If we were able to holler and boo the players, if they added [an expletive], what’s the difference?”

A fan who holds a sign bearing a vulgar slogan cannot be ejected because of the sign’s message. However, that fan could be ejected for holding up the sign so that it blocked the view of other patrons. Fans also can be ejected for throwing objects onto the court or for fighting on the grounds that they are creating a disturbance.

University policy prohibits the use of profanity in the classroom because it is considered disruptive. However, the use of racial or ethnic slurs outside the classroom is not prohibited. The university says it instead encourages students to undergo counseling.

The school’s athletic department, prompted by the Redick incident, will meet tomorrow to consider ways to discourage the profanity at the team’s six remaining home games.

University President Dan Mote is preparing an op-ed column about good sportsmanship for the student newspaper, the Diamondback. School officials confiscated about 100 T-shirts bearing vulgar slogans from a vendor because the seller was not licensed by the university.

Mr. Williams is considering addressing the students before an upcoming game. Before home games last season, the school played on the Jumbotron a short message from Mr. Williams encouraging good sportsmanship by the fans.

That message has not been played this season, and school officials said yesterday they did not know why the practice was discontinued.

Mr. Williams said he was upset by the incident at the Duke game and that he thinks the university should have rules to ensure good behavior.

“There’s freedom of speech rules that are in place,” he said. “But I can’t walk into a movie theater and yell, ‘Fire.’ There’s inciting-a-riot standards, too. It’s a battle between those two things.”

Said Athletic Director Debbie Yow: “Everybody has an opinion and is fairly passionate, but we prefer the students not yell profanity. We want them really loud, but not profane.”

Mr. Williams said the excessive vulgarity used by Terrapins fans sets Comcast Center apart from many other venues in which teams hold an imposing home-court advantage.

“I’m just disappointed,” said Mr. Williams, who played for the Terrapins, has coached the team for 15 years and won the 2001-02 NCAA national championship. “We’re not very creative if we have to resort to that. We’re going to play hard. We’re going to play a certain way, and we respect other teams that play hard, like Duke. There’s respect there as well as wanting to win, and our fans should understand that.

“We’re doing everything we can to win the game, but we don’t have to go over the line.”

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