By Susan Kinzie and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 3, 2009
Tickets were selling fast for Saturday night's showing of a "XXX blockbuster" at the University of Maryland's student union. (Pirates! Skeletons! An orgy of belly dancers!) Then, like a douse of cold water, the state Senate stepped in.
During debate yesterday over the state budget -- an exercise usually devoid of sex appeal -- a conservative senator drew his colleagues' attention to the scheduled showing of "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge," a hard-core porn film, at the state's flagship university.
The award-winning sequel is almost 2 1/2 hours' worth of, uh, swashbuckling. The cast is full of actors whose names are registered trademarks. The film is full of special effects (to say the least).
Legislators were not impressed.
Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) called it "shocking" and offered a budget amendment: Any public university that allowed the screening of a triple-X film would forfeit state funding -- about $424 million next year in U-Md.'s case.
Administrators canceled the screening. And although some advocacy groups were relieved, many students were mad.
Not because of the porn, said Liz Ciavolino, a sophomore who is active in the student group Feminism Without Borders, but because of something she thought was worse: "I really don't think the state should bully us around with their budget power."
All the activities at the student union are funded by fees that students pay, not the state. The university did not pay for the movie and would have covered its costs with ticket sales.
Aaron Titus of the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography said that although the outcome was good, the reasons were wrong.
"The University of Maryland should be responding to the power of ideas, not the power of the purse," he said. "I would challenge the university to conduct a thorough inquiry into the harms of pornography."
Operators of the mostly student-run Hoff Theater said they were not trying to offend anyone. It has become increasingly difficult to compete with DVD rentals and illegal downloading, said Lisa Cunningham, the theater's program director. Students have been wanting to show a triple-X movie for some time, and she was waiting for one that wasn't too violent or degrading, one that had a plot.
The movie, produced by Digital Playground, has been marketed to colleges and has been shown at several across the nation without major controversy. There's also an edited, R-rated version available at major chains.
"I thought it would be something fun to program toward the end of the semester, to give a little stress break for students," Cunningham said. She invited someone from Planned Parenthood to talk about safe sex before the midnight screening. (The pirates don't practice it.)
The screening would not have been the school's porn premiere. In the 1980s or '90s, Cunningham said, there was a soft-core series called "Take It Off at the Hoff." Several years ago, "Deep Throat" was shown to a sellout crowd, with few complaints. More recently, some doctoral candidates held a film series looking at ways that Elizabethan plays have been referenced in hard-core movies. They called it "Shakesporn."
"Pornography is not fun. It's poison," said Harris, who told his colleagues that he is the father of three daughters, the eldest of whom is a college senior.
While another senator was pressing Harris about why his amendment did not apply to double-X or single-X films, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) noticed that a group of third-graders had arrived to watch the action from the Senate gallery.
"Can we move to another amendment?" Miller said. And then: "We welcome the students from Plum Point Elementary School."
As debate on the other issue wrapped up, he told the children: "We're waiting for you to leave the room. We've got to talk about bad stuff."
Later, another senator was citing research that pornography makes men more angry at women who flirt but refuse to have sex. A group from Hollywood Elementary School in St. Mary's County then arrived.
Behind the scenes, a university lobbyist, U-Md. President C.D. Mote Jr. and other top officials were following the debate. Linda Clement, vice president of student affairs, decided to cancel the movie.
The opportunity to "engage students in a discussion about the national dialogue revolving around pornography" and responsible decision-making "got lost in the titillation revolving around the film's showing," a university statement said.