MD College Porn Policy Raises Questions about Screwing with Free Speech

By December 1, the College will have adopted a new policy regulating showings of pornographic material on campus. (Image Courtesy of Instock Images)
By December 1, the College will have adopted a new policy regulating showings of pornographic material on campus. (Image Courtesy of Instock Images)

In response to the showing of an XXX-rated film on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus in April of this year, the Maryland General Assembly is in the process of drafting a new policy for screening pornographic films.  The issue arose because the film was showed for entertainment rather than academic purposes on state property using state resources. State colleges and universities must now adopt a policy for showing pornographic or unrated films or their funding may be revoked.

A free speech specialist from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression submitted recommendations to the General Assembly regarding the language of a potential policy. Laura Bayless, the Dean of Students, explained that St. Mary’s is in the process of producing the “best version” of the policy for the campus. While the General Assembly may be “trying to link funding of state institutions with control over showing such films,” Bayless points out that the new policy will not limit anyone. It will simply require that the showing of a pornographic film be coupled with an educational program. The policy will be adopted by Dec. 1.

The main issue surrounding the new policy is that it could limit our First Amendment right of free speech. Freedom of expression also extends to associated rights, for example freedom to see and hear whatever we want. Susan Grogan, professor of Political Science, notes that the state could approach this concern in a variety of ways.

Because the film was viewed on state property, it could be taken that the “state” showed the film, and thus is entitled to some form of scrutiny. While we do not “leave our Constitutional rights at the school house door,” Grogan remarks that the Supreme Court has “cast doubt” upon this by separating issues of free speech from those of  “proper decorum” in school.  This action by the state can also be seen as a form of “parens patriae,” or government acting as the parent to the community. The state could argue that its responsibility to protect others from seeing such films.

Grogan also poses the question, “What constitutes the kind of obscenity that a nation or state has the right to prohibit? This is another valid claim that students might have. Still, it seems that the legal standards for this policy are obviously more about the educational concern than banning pornography entirely.

The new policy will most likely affect professors who incorporate pornography into their classes and the students that attend those classes. Joanne Klein, a Theater, Film, and Media Studies professor, said, “Traditionally and necessarily, college and university campuses have been a bulwark against abridgement of free speech. Aside from being impossible to define, pornography is protected speech.” However, because there is no concrete regulation at this point, Klein cannot “predict what implications” the policy might have for classes.

It is important for the language in the policy to be clear, especially when it comes to ratings. The concern is that some documentary and old films do not have a Motion Picture Association of America rating. In this case, the film would need to be incorporated into an educational program. However as Dean Bayless notes, most films of this type are already shown as part of such a program.

The campus should expect the updated policy to appear on the Judicial Affairs web page, as well as in the new student handbook.

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