Porn Movie Screening: Academic Freedom vs. Censorship?

John Watson and Aaron Titus
American University School of Communication and Maryland Coalition Against Pornography
Monday, April 6, 2009; 2:30 PM

University of Maryland students -- protesting what they see as an intrusion by Big Brother -- are planning to defy authority and screen a hard-core porn movie (Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge") tonight in the name of free speech and academic freedom.

Porn Flick Screening at U-Md. Still On, as Is Funding Threat (Post, April 5)

Blog (Showdown Set on U-Md. Pornography Plan) and Poll

John Watson, associate professor at American University's School of Communication, tells in an e-mail statement: "Censorship is inherently wrong. When the government, especially when embodied in an educational institution, intentionally becomes an impediment to the expression of ideas, fundamental liberty is compromised. Maryland lawmakers should have responded to speech they found despicable by sharing their opinions, not by threatening to shut down the discussion.

A conservative state legislator revived his threat made last week, saying that if the porn flick is shown on campus, the university might just kiss some state dollars goodbye.

Aaron Titus, spokesperson for the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography, says in an e-mail statement to "Most pornography is not speech protected by the Constitution. Therefore, screening this film constitutes an abuse rather than an exercise of Constitutional rights. Pornography's documented cycle of addiction, escalation, desensitization and resulting acts are more closely analogous to drug use than protected speech.

Both Watson and Titus were online Monday, April 6, at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss the issue.


John Watson: Government censorship is always troublesome.


Aaron Titus: The discussion about pornography has several interrelated dimensions, and the public discourse about the harms of pornography must include all of these: Moral, Spiritual, Cultural & Societal, Scientific, Political, and Legal, to name a few.


Ferndale, Md.: First amendment theories aside, aren't there permits required for theaters that choose to show material like this? You can't just build a theater that will show porn. There are rules. I would think PG County probably has some zoning regulations to this affect, and those rules would still apply on College Park, wouldn't they?

Aaron Titus: First, it's important to understand that obscenity is not protected by the first amendment. But in theory, if this particular material were protected by the First Amendment, yes, State actors can impose reasonable "Time, Place, and Manner" restrictions on otherwise Constitutionally protected speech. These may include reasonable zoning ordinances you describe.

One interesting, but unexplored issue is that possession of pornography with the intention to distribute is criminal offense in Maryland: Maryland Criminal Law ยง11-202. As a political matter, I doubt Maryland's AG will prosecute.

John Watson: I think the Maryland law outlaws obscenity and not mere pornography. Pornography, as some people forget, is protected by the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment.


Idaho: If any sexual assaults occur on campus following the showing of this movie and it can be proven that the assailant was present during the viewing, could the university then be held legally liable? Calling all lawyers.

John Watson: There is no law that I know of that makes anyone legally responsible for the actions of any other person unless that person specifically urged or forced the other person to commit an illegal act. I assume there are people who have committed crimes after watching the news or reading the works of Ovid.

Aaron Titus: In your hypothetical, the victim would have to prove what lawyers call "but-for" causation. That is, "But for the movie, the assailant would not have attacked me." As you can imagine, this is a difficult thing to prove. So in short, it would be difficult for a victim to successfully sue the University under those circumstances. However, a propensity to view violent pornography could be judicially recognized as relevant evidence to the question of guilt.


Maryland: If a student's group wanted to show a film denying the Holocaust or taking a pro-Nazi viewpoint, would the same students be crying "Free Speech?" Or does Free Speech only apply when the film is something you personally don't find offensive?

In this case, the students are defending a type of film that degrades women by making them into sex objects for use by men.

John Watson: As hard as it may be to believe right now, a pro-Nazi film should get an even greater amount of First Amendment protection than this porn film. The First Amendment exists only to protect unpopular speech... the popular ideas don't need any protection. It's those that we despise that must be protected. Not because we like those ideas, but because, among other things, we realize that at some point, we too, will have unpopular ideas to express and would or should want to keep that option open.

Aaron Titus: As a matter of law, I agree with John that a pro-Nazi film should get an even greater amount of First Amendment protection, because it is "political speech," which the government must show a compelling state interest and a narrowly tailored solution in order to regulate.

However, it doesn't change the fact that Obscenity, which a XXX porn movie is clearly, is not protected by the first amendment. The government can (and should) put any type of reasonable regulation on it, including censorship.

Most pornography is not speech protected by the Constitution. Therefore, screening this film constitutes an abuse rather than an exercise of Constitutional rights. Pornography's documented cycle of addiction, escalation, desensitization, and resulting acts are more closely analogous to drug use than protected speech.


Bethesda, Md.: I don't get it. The economy is in shambles and our state lawmakers are debating whether or not to allow a porno film to be shown at Maryland? Please.

Aaron Titus: Your statement implies one of three things. Either, 1: It is improper for the legislature to legislate on pornography, 2: Pornography regulation is so much less important than other state issues that it does not warrant even five minutes of the legislature's time, or 3: The legislature should not use the power of the purse to influence an institution of higher learning.

The first point is incorrect as a matter of law. Pornography has been, and continues to be a valid area of state legislative action. The state has many compelling interests in regulating pornography.

The second point is not a legal point, but political. So I will disagree on the political grounds that the political process is designed to do exactly that: Consider a myriad of important issues at the same time.

The third point would be the most legitimate; and I generally agree. However, the University of Maryland has failed in its academic duty to conduct a thorough academic inquiry into the harms of pornography. Where the academic establishment fails in their duty to behave academically, the political process may appropriate intervene.

John Watson: The notion that university educators should disallow pornographic films on campus until a full academic study has been completed sounds good, but really makes no sense. If the educators were considering releasing the ebola virus on campus, I too would urge further study. But porn has not proved to be so harmful that a restriction of a fundamental constitutional right is justified. If viewing pornography is so harmful, the world would have collapsed into anarchy shortly after we learned to make our first cave drawings.


Anonymous: Herndon, Va.

Here's the typical conundrum I see with restricting pornography with respect to men -- men often use pornography because they can watch sexual acts that their wives/girlfriends will not do or not do as often as they might like. Without pornography, the other avenues to satisfy these desires would be adultery, infidelity and prostitution. All of these seem to be worse alternatives for society than porn where the participants are paid fairly well considering the "work" performed. It seems like putting restrictions on this type of speech creates more problems than it solves. How does stopping pornography halt the natural urges that exist within us? Seems to me it doesn't, it only changes the means to satisfy them.

Aaron Titus: You make the moral argument that pornography provides an important sexual release for men. However, the scientific studies of which I am aware demonstrate just the opposite. Much like a drug, pornography has a tendency to create a cycle of addiction, escalation, escalation, desensitization, and resulting acts. Far from "supplementing" a health sex life, pornography distorts, escalates, and twists healthy sexual relationships and attitudes in ways that are universally negative. For example,
Mary Anne Layden, Ph D has documented many of the extensive harms of pornography exposure. Exposure to "massive pornography" leads to changes in beliefs and attitudes. For example, reduced support for the women's liberation movement, reduced belief that pornography needs to be restricted for minors, reduced recommended jail sentences for rapists, increased callousness toward woman, and beliefs of increased frequency of pathological sex (such as sex with animals, and sex with violence).

John Watson: I know of studies that make some of the same connections to drinking beer. Children should not drink beer. Adults should may do so in moderation if they want to. The U.S. Constitution was twisted for a short time to deny alcohol to those adults who wanted it. The First Amendment was used to untwist it. The First Amendment does not protect beer, although it does protect beer commercials.


Savannah, Ga.: You are using different words to describe the same film, I think for precise reasons. As Mr. Watson has pointed out, pornography is protected speech; as Mr. Titus has pointed out, obscenity isn't.

Mr. Titus: what makes you so sure this is obscenity?

Mr. Watson: what makes you so sure it isn't?

John Watson: Only a court of law can determine if a communication is obscene. I checked. No court in the United States has declared this film obscene. Please don't ask me to define obscenity. The U.S. Supreme Court has tried a few times and continues to fail. Nearly all of them are smarter than me.


Washington, D.C.: I have to question Aaron's assertion that a XXX movie is "clearly" obscene.

The term "XXX rated" is meaningless -- there is no organization or agency that gives out that rating (and there isn't anyone wants to get into the business of rating these movies either!). It's a marketing term that filmmakers choose to apply to their movies, like "romantic comedy" or "futuristic."

It can't be used as a legal standard any more than "futuristic" could.

John Watson: You must not forget that "obscene" is a legal term. It is used metaphorically to reflect cultural and moral values but its meaning is fluid. I found Halo 3 to be obscene. I don't play it anymore but you may and never fear that I will try to stop you.


Silver Spring, Md.: Censorship is one angle, but some would say that the university's authorities are neglecting their oversight responsibilities in that they did not really look into this, provide any restrictions about how it was to be done, consider legal ramifications, or offer any kind of balanced discussion forum. So -- in that kind of case, should the attitude just be that the show must go on, no matter what? Are you a Maryland parent? I am. And I find this porn-free-for-all very troubling.

John Watson: Everyone who takes elective office in Maryland swears to uphold the First Amendment (and the rest of the U.S. and state Constitutions). That means they have sworn to not use their government powers to restrict the speech of their constituents. That means in tending to their oversight responsibilities they MAY NOT threaten the speakers. If they feel a responsibility to act against this particular type of speech they should step forth and provide better speech so everyone will hear their superior ideas and contrast them with the ideas they oppose. That is how the system is supposed to work.
As for your children. So long as they are young enough that you are responsible for the speech they can hear, keep them away from porno movies. It is illegal for them to attend these showings. When they reach the age of majority (as the bulk of the students at the university have) they can make those choices for themselves.

Aaron Titus: I must respectfully take issue with Mr. Watson's characterization of this issue. Mr. Watson would find existing sections of the Maryland Criminal code unconstitutional, even though it explicitly adopts the constitutional tests required by the supreme court.

I will assume, for a moment, that a jury comprised of a cross-section of the community would find a XXX porn movie to be Obscenity. Strictly speaking, any student who participates in the screening may subject himself to criminal liability under the Maryland Criminal code. As a political matter, I doubt if the current AG would prosecute.

The discussion about pornography needs more idealists, and fewer ideologues; more principled discussion, and less extreme ideological fiction. If the University of Maryland is committed to honest debate, I challenge the university to conduct a thorough academic inquiry into the harms of pornography. To my knowledge, such an investigation has not taken place. Instead, they have sidestepped the issue by labeling the inquiry as "censorship."

I further challenge the notion that censorship is universally bad. In fact, it is undisputed that certain types of censorship are necessary to a well-functioning society: Child pornography and issues of national security are the two that first come to mind. Censorship itself is not bad. Unprincipled use of censorship is.

Finally, in an environment of ubiquitous pornography, it is disingenuous to place all responsibility on parents for what their children see. That would be like holding parents responsible for their children's asthma when the air quality is bad. While parents bear the responsibility to get medical attention, they cannot be expected to remove them from the environment completely.


An AU Alum: John --

Were you at AU roughly five years ago for an event called "Porn and Pizza"?

Just curious. The issue isn't quite the same because AU is a private university.

However, did the legislator indicate what specifically would not be funded if the university shows this movie?

John Watson: Sorry, I missed the pizza and porn event at AU. And yes things would be different at AU a private university. As a general rule, and there are exceptions, private entities are free to censor. Government entities are not. Censorship sometimes may be called for. It, however, is a perk that should not be provided to the government.


Alexandria, Va.: Thirty years ago, when I rode a dinosaur to attend William and Mary, the student union showed an occasional porno film on campus. Many of the viewers grew up to be soccer moms and paper-pushing bureaucrats. Perhaps there is something to this ban ...

John Watson: How dare you suggest that people who have seen a Playboy magazine or a naked Barbie doll can live productive lives? OK you are right. What is happening here is that it is always safe to attack pornographers because nobody -- except eggheads like myself and others who understand free speech -- will stand up to fight you. Pornography remains one of the most profitable businesses in the country because there are so many customers. But very few of them will stand up and say "I like this stuff." Few people fought prohibition until after their silence caused them to lose their after-dinner martinis.

Aaron Titus: I'll take your statement with a healthy dose of humor, but joking aside, the underlying argument is illusory: There need not be 100% causation or correlation in order to regulate an activity. After all, not all speeders crash. Not all drinkers are alcoholics. Not all abused children grow up to be sexual predators themselves. This does not negate the fact that the State has compelling interests to regulate or eliminate all of the activities, or that the activities themselves cause other harms.


D.C.: What would be the actual harm of showing this movie? Not the general harm that pornography as an industry brings to society, but the negative effect of a screening for a large group of students of this particular movie?

Aaron Titus: If you are interested in the harms that pornography poses, there is a large body of peer-reviewed material on this subject, and available through a quick search. Time is running short, and I do not have the time to compile a Bibliography at this point.

Although I'm sure that you are asking your question in good faith, I have found that many people who ask the question about harms do not really want to know the answer.

The difference between an ideologue and an idealist is that the idealist, while driven by the same principles as the ideologue, have a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of reality. While the ideologue distorts fact and reality to fit his bent view of the universe, the idealist is far more constrained by fact and logic which challenges his world view. The idealist makes a good faith attempt to see the universe for what it is.

Consequently, no number of scientific studies will convince an ideologue he is wrong, while an idealist will actively search out contrary views to inform his position.

John Watson: The concept of the idealist is perfectly suited to this discussion. the idealist constantly seeks out contrary views. This is what the First Amendment is about. It makes sure all ideas get into the marketplace while we search for the best one. Shutting down the marketplace while we search for the right answer is counterproductive. Show the movie, argue about it and then argue some more. We have to hope the best idea will come to the fore. The chances of that happening diminish the more we limit the conversation. Showing the movie is part of the conversation.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Titus, aren't you confusing pornography with obscenity? This movie may not be considered obscene under the community standard.

Aaron Titus: I believe I addressed this earlier. You are correct, that for purposes of this discussion it is reasonable to assert that a reasonable jury may find a XXX-rated porn movie to be "Obscenity."

John Watson: Or Not.


Annapolis, Md.: I agree with Mr. Titus that there are several overlapping issues in this case.

It seems to me that the most compelling conflict is that between the freedom for students and faculty to undertake academic inquiry which is essential for a university, and the interest of the state in regulating speech and conduct. If the state of Maryland wants to have a world-class university, it has to accept and protect academic freedom, even at the cost of tolerating some unsavory applications of it.

I think the second compelling issue is whether a single legislator is fitly discharging his or her duties if he or she threatens funding for an agency on the basis of operational decisions.

A third compelling issue, much lower down the scale and in some ways a corollary to the first, is what oversight role should be played by faculty and administrators at any institution, public or private, in regulating (a) legitimate academic inquiry and (b) other kinds of speech and activity by students.

Unfortunately, many of these issues get reduced to the titillating one of "Porn on campus! Woo!" Thanks for trying to focus soberly on the issues.

John Watson: This is an excellent argument. I just want to add that not everything that occurs on campus is educational. Sometimes it is just fun because there are people there who want to have fun. These people usually grow up and continue to want to have fun. At college they need teachable moments like these in which they learn about the limitations on the government to restrict their fun.

Aaron Titus: No showing has been made that Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge is somehow an exercise in academic freedom; I would find the assertion frankly laughable. To restate Mr. Watson's point, not everything which is said on campus is academic or educational. To hide a "fun" activity under the false cloak of academic freedom is at best misguided, and at worse insincere. I would agree with John on one point: At college, students need teachable moments like these in which they learn that the moral moorings and the law are not useless fictions which can be discarded at will. I share your lament that important issues like these are reduced to headlines. I appreciate the opportunity to elevate the discussion.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Titus --

It is my understanding that the labeling of content as "obscene" is based on it not being something that is commonly accepted in local society. Hence, the definition of what is "obscene" may change over time or from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. There is no one federal standard or ruling which says that certain acts are okay to depict, and certain ones are not.

That being said, for better or worse (and personally I believe it is for worse), it is hard to argue against the face that pornography like the film being shown at U-Md. is extremely popular. Sales of porn via DVD, and online purchases, are in the billions each year, and cut across all areas of the country, social strata, etc. This demand drives the industry to continue to produce material like this.

It is a desirable goal to reduce this huge demand by highlighting the negative impact of pornography. However, trying to do so through legislation by labeling something which is overwhelmingly deemed "acceptable"(based on the raw numbers and examination of who is buying this material, how often, and how much they spend, not any sort of ideological bias) is not the right way to accomplish this goal.

Aaron Titus: You are correct that the definition of "obscene" from a legal standpoint may vary from one legislature or jury, to another. Fortunately, "popularism" is not a factor in determining whether material is obscene. However, the well-documented harms associated with pornography consumption do not change, regardless of the law.

You make a political point that the goal should be to reduce demand for pornography, but that legislation is either ill equipped or inappropriate to curb demand.

As a practical matter, I agree that legislation cannot re-write the rules on supply and demand. The discussion about pornography has many dimensions and effects: Moral, Spiritual, Family, Legal, Political, Cultural, and Scientific. Consequently, just because a single remedy doesn't fix it all doesn't mean you should not invoke the remedy. A several-pronged approach is necessary to effectively reduce demand.

John Watson: I fear it may not be possible to reduce the demand for porn without the use of some serious drugs or a massive cultural education program that this planet has not seen since the 11th century. Porn, like real art, traffics in human emotional triggers and biological functions. Pornographers have a market that is created at puberty and endures until hormone production diminishes or human intellect and moral sprit assert their dominance.


Berryville, Va.: "...a propensity to view violent pornography could be judicially recognized as relevant evidence to the question of guilt"

Really, Mr. Titus? Because that's so wrong it destroys your credibility. How about defining the legal distinctions between obscenity and pornography as a starting point for your discussion? Because otherwise, it seems this chat is just about personal taste and opinion. I don't enjoy pornography myself, but it does not bother me that others do. Why should it be censored?

Aaron Titus: Berryville,
I appreciate the opportunity to make the distinction between obscenity and pornography, as it has not yet come up in this discussion. I would hate for my credibility to be destroyed by such an oversight.

"Obscenity" is is a legal term which was defined by the U. S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Miller v. California decision. For something to be found obscene, and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment, a judge or a jury representing a cross section of the community must determine that the material:

  • Taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient (that is, sick, morbid, shameful, or lascivious) interest in sex;

  • Depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive manner (i.e. goes beyond contemporary community standards with regards to depictions of sexual content or activity);

  • Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value.

The material has to meet all three tests before it can be found obscene, and loose first amendment protection.

The state has compelling interests to eliminate or regulate both Obscenity and it's less "hard-core" relative, pornography. May I have my credibility back?


Oakton, Va.: Doesn't censorship exist today on campuses as a matter of fact? It can be very covert, such as a student newspaper that doesn't publish "unpopular" opinion columns or students who know to not express conservative opinions in a class conducted by a professor known for his very liberal views. It can also be very overt, such as the riot at Columbia University last year that prevented a presentation by the Minutemen.

Professor Watson, is screening a porn film really such a critical test of free speech on campus when it is already denied in so many other ways?

John Watson: Every exercise of government censorship should be rebuked. I don't mean to imply that we should take to the streets, but each encroachment should be noted and responded to. Even if it is a short contribution to a chat.
It is important to note the distinction between censorship and editing and exercising good taste. I was a reporter for 10 years and "idiot" editors censored my work. I was an editor for 11 years and I edited the work of some "idiot" reporters. The government is incapable of editing or exercising good taste. It can only censor.


Arlington, Va.: From what I understand the Student Union is showing the film with funding provided by selling tickets to students who wish to watch it. Therefore, no state funding is involved in showing this film. Therefore, for the Maryland state legislature to get involved in trying to stop the viewing of this film essentially make this the same fight over free speech that the Supreme Court ruled in Stanley v. Georgia to be protected by both the 1st and 14th Amendments?

Aaron Titus: I think I made this point earlier, but where an academic institution fails in its responsibility to conduct a thorough academic inquiry into the harms of pornography, the legislature may appropriately intervene.

John Watson: No! No! No! The number of academic inquiries that have been fully completed can be counted on the thumbs of one hand. Academic inquiry never ends. Are we to wait? No! No! NO! This is a blank check for the government (sometimes known as politicians) to intervene in academia.


Alexandria, Va.: Suppose the film encouraged illegal drug use. Can a movie suggest any illegal behavior?

John Watson: Now we are getting the heart of the First Amendment. Yes a movie may suggest illegal behavior and remain protected by the First Amendment (Think Cheech and Chong movies). Movies may even suggest overthrowing the the legitimate government of the United States and still retain its legal (think Mel Gibson movies). The first Amendment says, nothing is so holy we may not criticize it.

Aaron Titus: Mr. Watson's characterization of the Constitution is relatively new and certainly overblown, especially from an Originalist point of view. The assertion that the First Amendment robs every sacred thing of its right to be sacred; that the Constitution robs every private thing the right to be private; that the Bill of Rights eviscerates the government's ability to protect against hate and scorn can be nothing but excessive. And if Mr. Watson's statement is true, then we are in a sad state of affairs, indeed.


Washington, D.C.: The legislature's issues with the screening seemed to be tied more to religion as opposed to the first amendment. Separation of church and state, please.... Students have the right to choose whether to attend this screening. They have the right to choose to peaceably demonstrate against it should they so choose, as does the community. However, pornography -- as long as performed by consenting adults -- is legal in this country, and viewable without accompaniment for patrons over 18. As long as the university ensures that unaccompanied minors do not participate, this is a legal activity.

Aaron Titus: I'm not really sure that I see the connection, unless you would assert that all concepts of morality are per se religious. If so, I would disagree with that statement, per se.

The discussion about pornography has several interrelated dimensions. They include, as a minimum: Moral, Spiritual, Cultural & Societal, Scientific, Political, and Legal dimensions.

Often, these fields are incorrectly mistaken for one another, which only leads to confusion. For example, the statement, "I have a Constitutional right to watch whatever I want" is actually a political statement, dressed in pseudo-legal language. As a strictly legal or even Constitutional matter, it is incorrect: You do not have the legal right to watch whatever you want, even if you have a strong and good-faith political belief to the contrary. The government, and certainly private entities, may restrict what a person views in many constitutionally permissible ways, even if it grates against one's good-faith political sensibilities. Your post mentions a few of the many principles on which a legislature or jury may reasonably restrict or regulate the right to listen to speech.

The real question is how, to what extent, and under what circumstances a government or private entity can regulate speech.

You also mention the right to peaceably demonstrate against any censorship. I wholeheartedly agree that the constitution explicitly protects the right to peaceably assemble and ask the government for redress against perceived or actual harms.

John Watson: In my view, the law is the land based-embodiment of morality. I say land-based as to distinguish it from religious morality which is based somewhere in the ether. Law makes immoral behavior punishable in real time as opposed to the afterlife. Few humans have the ability to make such moral judgments and impose punishments. I would prefer to have my purely moral lapses dealt with in the afterlife. Some moral authority should not rest with mortal lawmakers. Let us decide what we consider obscene, let us respect the rights of others who do not want to see it.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Is pornography an industry that we need to regulate? Despite the current economic crisis this is one of the only industries making money in America?

Aaron Titus: Yes, absolutely. We need to regulate the pornography industry.


Arlington, Va.: I really fail to see what the content of this film has to do with anything. It is ONE film. If the senator has a problem with pornography, he should suggest a referendum for the entire state to vote upon. But putting hundreds of millions of dollars in funding on the line because of ONE instance of behavior at an institution the size of UMD seems to me to be micromanagement to the extreme.

Aaron Titus: I think that you're right- this is one film. But, as with all political matters, it served (rightly or wrongly) as a flash point to spur a public discussion on the matter. I welcome the opportunity.

And aren't we all for a healthy public discourse, anyway?


D.C.: Does U-Md. restrict access to pornography from on-campus computers? What is Mr. Titus's position on allowing students unfettered viewing of "obscene" material using university resources (Internet access funded with tax dollars)? Logic would follow that it should be viewed with equal scrutiny, or perhaps more.

Aaron Titus: I am not aware of U-Md's policy on restricting access to pornography. I suspect that they do not for several technical reasons.

In the few minutes I have left, I'd say that the U.Md. probably has a theoretical legal right to restrict obscenity from on-campus computers.

However, as a practical matter, current technology is sufficiently limited that any likely technical restriction the University came up with would probably not be narrowly tailored enough to survive judicial review.


St. Mary's City, Md.: I find the addiction arguments to be questionable at best, partly because the Supreme Court rulings on the matter largely predate that argument. The Court's "prurient interest" standard implies that it's wrong to expose people to entertainment that may arouse them, which sounds like a moral belief disguised as a legal argument.

If there is such a thing as addiction to pornography, it's most likely a symptom of deeper personality issues that were already there before the person turned to the material. It's ridiculous to compare the material to drugs that are chemically addictive. Again, if the addiction exists, a better comparison would be gambling, except that laws against gambling are justified because they involve actual harm, specifically theft through deception.

In my experience, the vast majority of the addiction arguments come from religious people who believe in a universal obligation to reproduce, people who argue that self-pleasure is inherently immoral and sinful. That doesn't qualify as a basis for making law. Let those who have a free hand cast the first stone.

Aaron Titus: I think this comment is a great example of someone who would deny the public discourse of the several interrelated dimensions. I am suspicious of anyone who would attempt to limit the public discourse by stripping it of one of these fields: They include, as a minimum: Moral, Spiritual, Cultural & Societal, Scientific, Political, and Legal.

Despite a 200-year tradition of morals legislation in the United States, St. Mary's City apparently rejects this notion. While I appreciate that some people might be uncomfortable with a public discussion which includes the very real forces of morality, spirituality, and even religion, I think it is disingenuous to dismiss all of the other cultural, societal, scientific, political, and legal arguments against pornography as religious hogwash.

One reason proponents of obscenity are so successful is because they have been able to define the terms of the debate and strip several legitimate dimensions from the public discourse. Right now the pornography debate is about free speech versus moral censorship, which is (admittedly) not a politically winnable debate.


Southwest D.C.: It seems to me that if you were to screen a porn film in your home, it would be legal, however repugnant that may be to some. However, I think it obvious that the same screening would be illegal if it were in a public park, given the fact that the images are being imposed on others. The key issue here is whether U of M is a public or private venue. Just because it is a public university, does this screening constitute a public act? I am unfamiliar with how the student body wishes to screen this film, but as long as it is indoors and only students allowed, I have trouble making the distinction between that and a student watching a porn film in his/her dorm room.

Aaron Titus: As a legal matter, the question of public and private behavior is closely related and intertwined with notions of speech, privacy, mens rea, and other legal concepts. Unfortunately, not enough time to go into it in sufficient depth right now.

One other issue is the question of who actually does the censoring. The Constitution constrains government actors, not private individuals. Again, I wish there were time for a thorough discussion.


John Watson: What we have done here today, discussing, arguing, informing, is the proper response to speech we abhor. The Maryland legislators should take note. You have at least two responsibilities to your constituents -- protect their interest with your authority and honor your oath to respect their constitutions.


Aaron Titus: In closing, it is vital that the public discourse include a healthy discussion about all facets: Morality, Spirituality, Religiosity, Legality, Constitutionality, Science, etc.


Silver Spring, Md.: I keep reading "Most pornography is not speech protected by the Constitution." Can you provide a citation?

Aaron Titus: I may have not been sufficiently technically precise. The veracity of that statement is dependent upon what percentage of pornography is "obscenity," and how you define "protected." The Constitution provides several levels of protection to speech. Pornography, 100 percent protected against all forms of regulation whatsoever, probably does not exist.


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