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Bad civics lesson: U. Maryland’s president caves to state senator’s efforts against on-campus erotic film screening

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Bill of Rights. (From the public domain.)

For many years, I have proudly defended the robust First Amendment rights of everyone, including political activists of all stripes, libel defendants, and the adult entertainment industry.

Politicians’ efforts to clamp down on adult entertainment are hardly confined to the Bible Belt. In every state, most politicians seem to think they can score political points by attacking adult entertainment, which, of course, is an attack on the First Amendment.

Generally, government restrictions on adult entertainment necessitate strict scrutiny absent sufficiently relevant and reliable studies demonstrating negative local secondary effects from such entertainment. City of L.A. v. Alameda Books, 535 U.S. 425  (2002). This month, however, the University of Maryland’s president cancelled an on-campus showing of an erotic film, not due to any negative secondary effects claim, but from buckling prematurely and fearfully under pressure from an eventually-failed effort by state senator Andrew Harris to withhold funds from state colleges that permitted such screenings.

How prematurely fearful did the University of Maryland’s president act? He acted so prematurely that this week the state senate killed the measure. As the Associated Press reports: "Senate approval [of the state budget on April 8, 2009] came after a skirmish over a proposed amendment to tie funding for public colleges and universities to whether they follow through with developing policies relating to the showing of pornographic films. The amendment sought by Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Cecil, was ruled out of order after senators appeared fatigued over the issue."

This pathetic story goes beyond a college president who backed down to the detriment of the First Amendment. This story is an indictment of the failure — until the measure was killed in the state senate yesterday — of the vast majority of state senate members to oppose senator Harris’s censorious effort. At least as the University of Maryland’s Diamondback newspaper reports: "With the exception of Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery) [a law professor and longtime ACLU friend] and a few supporters who argued the state was treading on First Amendment rights, most legislators, as well as the university administration, don’t think the General Assembly overstepped their bounds. And in an interview Friday, before students announced the protest screening, university President Dan Mote said the legislature is free to make decisions about how the university uses state money."

Nobody has to like adult entertainment or any other form of expression to strongly oppose content-based restrictions of such expression. If unpopular expression is not protected under the First Amendment, the First Amendment will be severely weakened in protecting expression that you and I hold dear. Jon Katz