- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

Legislate this.

Some students at the University of Maryland at College Park upset that the General Assembly forced school officials to cancel the screening of a pornographic film on campus Saturday are exercising their right to free speech.

They plan to screen the movie off campus and host speakers from the faculty as well as groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss free speech.

The university student union had organized an official screening of the hard-core porn film “Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge” at the school’s Hoff Theater on Saturday night as part of a nationwide discussion on pornography. But when the legislature got word of the event during a debate on the state budget Wednesday, lawmakers threatened to cut the school off from $424 million in state funding if the screening was not called off. Campus officials canceled the screening shortly thereafter.

Students call it an attack on free speech.

“There is a lot of anger in the way the situation has played out,” said Kenton Stalder, a junior English major and a member of the student government. “A question we want to point out is: Does education have to start and stop at the classroom door?”

Mr. Stalder said he and other members of his campus political party, the Student Power Party, are organizing the unofficial screening.

Other student leaders described the controversy as “an embarrassment” for the legislature.

“It’s absolutely immature politics. It makes the General Assembly look like an embarrassment. How can an institution of 45,000 people be threatened by a porn film?” said student government Vice President Joanna Calabrese, a junior environmental policy major.

Lawmakers engaged in a heated debate Wednesday after Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican, proposed to amend the state budget to cut university funding because of the screening. Mr. Harris said the event was an “implicit endorsement” of pornography by the university.

“Pornography is poison. They want to hook our kids on pornography,” he said. The amendment was ultimately withdrawn after the university canceled the screening.

Sen. Jamin B. Raskin, Montgomery Democrat, said the amendment violated the students’ constitutional right of free speech and that the state should not be using its “power of the purse” to censor material it doesn’t approve.

“It’s easy to tolerate the speech we agree with, but the real test of the First Amendment is to see whether we can tolerate speech that we don’t agree with. We failed that test,” he said.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Frederick Republican, said students have the right to watch the film, but on their own dime.

“It was something of no education value at a public institution funded by taxpayer dollars. If the students want to see the movie on their time and on their dollar, that’s fine. But not on ours,” he said.

Mr. Stalder said the original screening was not mandatory and would have been funded primarily through ticket sales.

Similar screenings of the film, which cost more than $10 million to produce and has been billed as the most expensive triple-X movie ever made, have been held at the University of California at Los Angeles, with more than 2,000 attendees; the University of California at Davis; Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon University; and Southern Connecticut State University.

Christopher Ruth, a spokesman for the film’s distributor, Digital Playground, said the company was “shocked” when it learned that College Park had canceled the screening.

“The government has no place to tell adults what they’re supposed to do. They [the legislators] had essentially committed extortion so the university would do what they want,” Mr. Ruth said.

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