By Susan Kinzie and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 6, 2009 6:09 PM
With a planned showing of a controversial pornographic movie on the University of Maryland campus just hours away, the state legislator who is trying to halt the event turned his attention to the university's capital budget, threatening an attempt to cut those funds in Annapolis.
State Sen. Andrew Harris (R-Baltimore County), who last week tried to block the university's $424 million share of state operating funds over plans to screen the film at the theater in the student union, announced his new approach today. The state operating budget is now in conference committee and cannot be amended when it emerges, but debate on the capital budget could begin as early as tonight.
"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. Just because someone is on a college campus they do not have a right to spend the hard-earned money of Maryland's taxpayers on something as detrimental to our society as hard-core XXX pornography."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that he cannot control the amendments Harris introduces but said he hopes the issue will be resolved by university regents, whom Miller said should develop a policy on the kind of movies that 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."
Miller said that he was awaiting advice from the Attorney General's Office, which he said may have questions about whether Harris's approach is constitutional.
Students launched a letter-writing campaign to Harris, which they said would call for protection of their First Amendment rights.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in funding potentially at stake, administrators canceled a screening last week of "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge" at the student union theater. But a coalition of students rescheduled a showing of excerpts for tonight in a lecture hall, taking the movie out from under the university's auspices.
Millree Williams, a university spokesman, released a statement this afternoon 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 pornographic film occurred with little outcry.
After a panel discussion about free speech tonight, a coalition of student activists will show at least some of the movie, a two-and-a-half-hour, big-budget film that features buccaneers, sea monsters and orgies. It's not about the porn, according to several members of the Student Power Party, a coalition running a slate of candidates for student government elections Tuesday and Wednesday, it's about principles.
"We believe that dialogue is always a good thing," said Malcolm Harris, who is running for student body president and helped organize tonight'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."