Student-hosted porn screening threatens college funding

April 8, 2009

Pirates of the Caribbean, meet Deep Throat.

A porn flick making its way across college campuses is drawing stiff resistance from critics who say universities shouldn’t pay for smut. But the film’s supporters say it doesn’t rise to the legal definition of obscenity, and the schools have a First Amendment right to show it. 

The film in question — "Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge" — is produced by Digital Playground, which calls itself "the world leader in adult filmmaking and interactive formats boasting the largest HD library available." The film that has been airing on campuses is unrated, although Digital Playground has produced an R-rated version. It stars "contract girls" Jesse Jane, Tommy Gunn and Gabriella Fox, and it has a pirate theme that goes way beyond booty. 

Among the colleges that have screened the film are the University of California-Davis, UCLA, Carnegie-Mellon the University of Maryland and Northwestern University. The screenings usually include discussions led by Planned Parenthood or professors on First Amendment rights and pornography.

But the University of Maryland’s planned screening has infuriated one state lawmaker, and he’s introducing legislation to withhold school funding for universities that don’t develop policies that note "the serious social and health concerns associated with screening pornographic film."

Sen. Andrew Harris planned to introduce his proposal Wednesday. If passed, the governing boards of the state’s public universities would have to adopt policies on pornography before the schools receive any capital funds for the next fiscal year.

"The health problem with pornography is not birth control," Harris said of Planned Parenthood’s participation. He noted that porn creates addicts, breaks up families and degrades men and women.

But Robert Shibley, vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) told FOXNews.com the movie doesn’t rise to the level of obscenity and is therefore protected by free speech rights.

"We’re very concerned about the Maryland Legislature interfering, and here’s the reason why," he said. "I don’t think there’s any doubt that this movie is pornographic in nature but I think there is a very active question about whether this movie constitutes obscenity in any sense."

Shibley said obscene speech doesn’t have First Amendment protection. But according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. California, speech can only be defined as obscene when it meets three conditions — it must appeal to prurient interest, violate contemporary community standards and lack serious artistic, literary, political or scientific value.

"I don’t think this would be found to be obscene in the legal sense under the Miller v. California test because I do think this has artistic value," Shibley said, adding, "I am not comfortable with the government deciding what kind of art has value and what doesn’t."

But others disagree.

"I certainly think it’s inappropriate for a state university to be showing pornographic films to its students," said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council. "I think Senator Harris was perfectly justified in threatening to withhold state funds if this continues."

At first, the University of Maryland canceled a planned screening of "Pirates" in response to Harris proposing a budgetary amendment that would have denied millions of dollars in state aid to the school. But a group of students and professors moved the venue and aired 30 minutes of the movie on Monday night.

Harris pulled back on that plan and moved to the health and safety language in the broader proposal. Sen. Jamie Raskin said he was pleased to see Harris "backpedaling furiously."

"The university already has a policy on pornography," Raskin said. "It’s called the First Amendment."

Raskin said the state should beware of micro-managing universities.

"If we try to micro-manage university affairs any further it will be insulting to educators, administrators and students," he said. "The legislature is not the Siskel and Ebert of the state."

Shibley agreed.

"There is no agreement on what the ‘social and health concerns’ are from a pornographic film," he said. "If anything, things should be more permissive on a college campus than anywhere else. … If there’s any place we should be discussing the health effects and that sort of thing on porn, it should be on a college campus."

But others say universities need to be held accountable.

"I think it’s a stretch beyond the breaking point to suggest showing a porn film is a necessary part of the educational experience for students," Sprigg told FOXNews.com.

He said students have abundant opportunities off campus to access pornography.

"I don’t think the schools should be facilitating it," he said. "Now when it comes to free speech, if they want to have a debate, I think it’s perfectly find to have a discussion. But showing the film is more geared toward titillation than education."

Robin Sawyer, a human sexuality professor at the University of Maryland, said Harris’ proposal infringes on intellectual rights and he hopes it doesn’t infringe on his classroom instruction too.

"Is the state going to appoint a pornography watchdog?" he asked. "How can I apply for that position?"

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Schools: University of Maryland – College Park Cases: University of Maryland: State Senators Pressure University to Cancel Controversial Film Screening