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Monday, October 12, 2009

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS have a lot on their minds these days, from shoring up sagging enrollment to keeping soaring costs in check. Add this to the to-do lists of Maryland's college officials: Craft pornography rules. Due date: Oct. 23.

More precisely, Maryland schools have to submit to the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland on this date a draft policy "on the use of public higher education facilities for the displaying or screening of obscene films and materials." A final version must be forwarded to Maryland lawmakers on Dec. 1.

This absurd assignment comes courtesy of Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) and friends in the Annapolis statehouse. Seems that Dr. Harris -- he has a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University -- has a problem with dirty movies being shown on Maryland's college campuses -- even if the events are sponsored by private groups and paid for with private funds.

Dr. Harris's ire was sparked last spring upon learning that "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge" -- apparently an XXX-rated film -- was going to be shown at the student union on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland. Dr. Harris threatened to cut off state funds to the school unless it yanked the movie. The school obliged, but students ultimately prevailed. The film, which was provided free by the production company, was shown and packaged with a discussion about -- what else? -- censorship and the First Amendment.

Too bad Dr. Harris wasn't there to listen -- and learn. Dr. Harris and others who object to pornography -- and there are plenty on both the right and left -- are well within their rights to repudiate the genre. They are welcome to stay away from such events or even picket publicly to show their disgust. What they are not entitled to do is keep other adults -- even young, college-age adults -- from consuming such material if they so choose.

Dr. Harris's latest ploy doesn't literally constitute censorship; after all, he is not -- at least not yet -- insisting on an outright ban on the material on campuses. But the demand for guidelines, coupled with his earlier financial threat, constitutes a form of intimidation that is particularly offensive because it targets free speech in what should be a bastion of free thought and expression.

Maryland administrators probably feel they have no choice but to come up with some sort of pap to appease the good doctor -- and keep their budgets intact. But if they had any courage, they would refuse the assignment. This is one case where earning an "incomplete" would be a badge of honor.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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