A portion of a pornographic film was screened last night on the University of Maryland campus despite a new threat from a state legislator to deny the school construction funds unless it develops an "acceptable" policy on pornography on campus.
About 200 students turned out for sexually explicit excerpts of "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge" and a discussion of free speech and pornography in a lecture hall at the College Park campus. The event was sponsored by a coalition of student leaders.
At times it felt more like a rally than a panel discussion, with loud applause for lawyers and professors as they spoke before a thicket of TV news cameras about the importance of free speech.
Then the screen lit up, and the mood changed immediately. Music thundered through the room, and students began laughing at the pirates. After 15 minutes of churning seas, thunder and pirates wielding giant cudgels, a man in the audience called out that he wanted to see (roughly translated) some skin.
About half an hour of the 2 1/2 -hour film was shown. The point was the principle, not the porn, several student leaders said. Besides, the NCAA championship game was starting about 9.
"That was crazy. I don't know what they were thinking, to put that in a public viewing, especially on a college campus," said Idara Inokon, 19. "It's just not appropriate."
But Dmytro Berkout, a 19-year-old student from Ukraine, said the controversy was a lot of fuss -- by both sides -- over nothing.
State Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) last week threatened to block the university's $424 million share of state operating funds over plans to show the film at a theater in the student union. The state operating budget is in conference committee and cannot be amended when it emerges, but debate on the capital budget begins today.
"I know some students would like to portray this as a free speech issue," Harris said in a statement. "It is not. This is about the use of taxpayer dollars, and the Maryland General Assembly acts every day on issues concerning the use of taxpayer dollars."
Administrators canceled a screening of the movie scheduled for last Saturday night at the student union theater when Harris protested. The university did not pay for the movie, and costs would have been covered by ticket sales. A representative from Planned Parenthood was invited to discuss safe sex.
But a coalition of students rescheduled a showing of excerpts in a lecture hall, taking the movie out from under the university's auspices.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that he cannot control the amendments Harris introduces but that he hopes the issue will be resolved by university regents, whom Miller called on to develop a policy on what movies may be shown on campus.
"The General Assembly is not going to go on record supporting pornography," Miller said. "At the same time, the selection of movies on the College Park campus is not something the General Assembly should be debating in the last week of the legislative session."
Harris said the university pornography policy should require that "you can't have university-sponsored XXX entertainment on campus." He said last night's discussion, which placed the film in a broader context, "is probably more appropriate for a college campus."
Despite yesterday's maneuvering, it seemed unlikely that the Democrat-led Senate would adopt a measure that poses a serious threat to the university's funding. Even Harris said he would prefer an agreement with university leaders.
Students yesterday launched a letter-writing campaign to Harris, which they said would call for protection of their First Amendment rights.
Millree Williams, a university spokesman, released a statement yesterday saying that "on their own, student groups moved to create a discussion event during which they planned to screen excerpts from a pornographic film and to explore issues surrounding the place and implications of pornography and constitutionally protected free speech in our community."
"Although not condoning this movie or any excerpts from it that might be shown, the University of Maryland must allow this event, but has insisted that it include an educational component."
Williams said discussion of sensitive topics such as the impact of pornography on society is "characteristic of a vibrant educational community."
At Carnegie Mellon University, University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Davis and several other schools, a public screening of the same big-budget movie occurred with little outcry.
Several members of the Student Power Party, a coalition that is running a slate of candidates in student government elections today and Wednesday, said the point of the screening was to protect the principle that they would not be bullied.
"We believe that dialogue is always a good thing," said Malcolm Harris, who is running for student body president and helped organize last night's screening. "You never help solve any problem by not talking about it. It's a great opportunity to have more of a dialogue on free speech and the role of pornography in society.
"We invited Senator Harris," he said, "but he declined the invitation."
Andrew Harris called on the university administration to assert its authority.
"The taxpayers are paying a high six-figure salary to a lot of people who are supposed to be running that campus," he said.
"They need to take control of this situation. If they cannot handle this situation, they cannot handle the type of money that is earmarked for them in the capital budget, either."