- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

University of Maryland officials can restrict the use of vulgar signs and chants by fans at campus sporting events, the state’s attorney general has ruled.

The university may “constitutionally adopt a carefully drafted policy that prohibits offensive speech at Comcast [Center],” Assistant Attorney General John Anderson wrote in a four-page memo. “I do not conclude that the First Amendment condemns any such effort to failure.”

The memo, dated March17, was obtained by The Washington Times yesterday.

George Cathcart, the university’s director of communications, said school officials will meet with student groups over the next few months to devise a new code of conduct. The goal is to have a policy in place before the Terrapins’ football opener at Byrd Stadium against Northern Illinois on Sept.4.

Mr. Cathcart labeled the ruling as “broad guidelines.”

“We have not made any plans as to what we’ll do and will let students drive whatever we do,” Mr. Cathcart said. “We have now until football season to prepare.”

Any policy devised by the school would not include criminal penalties, Mr. Anderson wrote, because “offensive speech” remains protected under the 1971 Supreme Court ruling Cohen v. California. In that case, a man wearing a T-shirt bearing a vulgar statement about the military draft was found not guilty of lewd, vulgar or profane conduct.

However, Mr. Anderson cited two cases in which restrictions on behavior were permitted in places involving “captive auditors,” such as young children at games. Mr. Anderson also said the university could suffer financial harm or a damaged reputation from the behavior of its fans.

“This is a concern of the sensibilities of the public,” Mr. Anderson said yesterday. “I don’t think they should be subject [to profanity].”

Mr. Anderson said no policy should be implemented until other efforts “prove to be ineffective.” The new standards also must pass a review court to ensure they are not excessive or “unacceptably vague.” The policy must be well-publicized to ensure that ticket holders are aware of it and the school must provide an appeal system.

Athletic Director Debbie Yow could not be reached for comment, but she repeatedly has supported restrictions on vulgar behavior by fans.

The university requested that the state’s attorney general review the school’s existing policy in the wake of a Jan.21 incident at a men’s basketball game at Comcast Center that angered and embarrassed school officials and alumni.

In the waning minutes of a 68-60 loss to Duke, fans directed a sustained, vulgar chant at Blue Devils guard J.J. Redick. The profanity, clearly audible to ESPN viewers, created a national stir and highlighted what seemed to be a worsening problem at Comcast Center.

The university in the past had evicted fans from games for throwing objects on the basketball court or fighting. However, officials had said that school policy prevented them from stopping fans from screaming expletives at opposing teams or wearing T-shirts bearing vulgar slogans because those actions are protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

The school took steps to discourage the use of vulgar language after the Duke game. In a courtside talk before a game Feb.1, Terrapins coach Gary Williams urged fans not to use such language. At later games, the school played a pregame video on the Comcast Center Jumbotron that featured the coach discussing appropriate conduct.

There were no major incidents the rest of the season. Some fans began disputing calls by referees by holding up signs with pointedly polite messages such as, “I disagree.”

School officials see Mr. Anderson’s ruling as a way to bolster the measures already taken.

“It is encouraging because it allows us to take additional steps,” said Michael Lipitz, associate athletic director. “We’re trying to create a positive experience for our fans.”

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