Porn as Campus Attraction

Producers of new feature offer free screenings to colleges, some of which accept. At U. of Maryland, legislators get movie blocked.
April 3, 2009

A new pornographic film is setting off campus debates about free expression and sexism. At the University of Maryland at College Park, those debates will not be based on a public screening. An administrator there has canceled a student union screening of a hardcore pornographic movie on campus, amid pressure from state legislators who threatened to deny the institution funding if the movie was shown.

Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge” was slated to be screened at midnight Saturday at the 550-seat movie theater in Maryland’s student union. The theater’s programming committee, which consists entirely of students, approved the adult film for screening after having received a free copy from its production company, Digital Playground. The film, a pornographic homage to Disney’s popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, has been distributed to a number of campuses around the country in an effort to generate publicity.

In the past few months, the XXX-rated film has been screened with administrative approval at the University of California at Los Angeles, Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon University. Most of these screenings, however, have incorporated outside groups to provide what some call an “educational setting” for the adult film. At the UCLA screening, for instance, stars of the film answered critical and comical questions about the role of the adult entertainment industry.

Christopher Ruth, spokesman for Digital Playground, said the production company adopted a college-specific marketing technique after the original film generated so much buzz on campuses. He said a number of students groups at institutions around the country, including Carnegie Mellon, preemptively asked the company for copies of the film before they began offering it up for free to others. What has followed, he said, has been a parade of “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-like themed screenings with students dressing up as characters.

When “Pirates II” was released last fall, Ruth said he offered it to more than 100 colleges in the United States and Canada and has since received about 50 requests for the film. He noted that 15 colleges (which he wouldn’t name) are in various stages of preparing the film for screening, adding that a group at Tulane University is slated to offer the next official screening later this month.

Maryland’s student union had asked Planned Parenthood to give a presentation on safe sex before the screening of the film this weekend. Laura Meyers, president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, was careful to note that the group does not endorse the making or screening of pornographic films but did agree to make a presentation.

“We saw the screening as an opportunity to educate students about responsible sexual behavior,” Meyers said. “Our original intent was to make a brief presentation, and say ‘This is a movie. This isn’t real life. You have to protect your health and those around you as well.’ When you think about media and its various forms, students are bombarded by inappropriate messages about sex every day. We want them to have the information they need to make a responsible decision.”

Thursday afternoon, however, the screening of “Pirates II” was canceled by Linda Clement, Maryland’s vice president for student affairs, after a discussion with other administrators and students who sponsored bringing the film.

Earlier in the day, The Baltimore Sun reported that a state legislator threatened to amend Maryland’s annual budget to deny funding to any institution that allowed a public screening of a XXX-rated film. Those screened as part of a class, however, would have been given leniency. Coincidentally, The Sun also reported that discussion on the matter had to be delayed on the Senate floor because groups of elementary school-age students were in the viewing galley at the time the matter was brought forth.

Andrew P. Harris, the Republication senator who suggested the amendment, did not return calls. Still, Thomas V. Mike Miller, Democratic senate president, did make comment about the situation on the floor.

"That's really not what Maryland residents send their young students to college campus for, to view pornography," Miller said, according The Sun.

Maryland officials deny that the threats to cut funding influenced their decision to cancel the screening. Millree Williams, a university spokesman, said the decision had been made before the matter was brought before the legislature, noting that word was eventually given to the Senate that the matter was now “moot,” and it was dropped.

“We were surprised the state legislature would pay attention to something like this,” Williams said. “Our original intent was to engage students in a discussion about the national dialogue revolving around pornography. This film was on a national tour, and we thought that would be a good impetus for what we were trying to do. When it took a dramatic and salacious turn away from the educational intent, we decided to cancel it.”

Officials from Digital Playground were astonished at the events that brought forth this cancellation, noting that they had not experienced any problems at other large-scale screenings on college campuses.

“What happened at the University of Maryland is amazing,” Ruth said. “The Maryland state government put pressure on a public institution that it will cut funding if this screening happens. I don’t fault the university. That’s some scary stuff. Still, the state legislature has no right to do that. This is strictly a First Amendment violation.”

Though Ruth said the production company was unlikely to take any legal action, he did think this act of censorship would bolster a discussion nationwide. For example, he said a student group from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County told him that it was planning a screening of the film next weekend in direct protest to the move at the state’s flagship at College Park.

“This is a huge mistake on the state’s part,” Ruth said. “We absolutely didn’t expect this. We’ve heard from people who’ve said, ‘I didn’t even want to see this, but I’ve just been told that I can’t see this.’ And what do you think happens when you tell students they’re not allowed to have something?”

Maryland officials rebutted claims that their cancellation of the screening was a violation of their students’ rights.

“This isn’t a First Amendment issue,” Williams said. “The students who run the [theater] are university employees. The ultimate decision comes under the purview of the vice president of student affairs. Still, she is not going to make that decision in isolation.”

Across the country at the University of California at Davis, another screening of the same adult film was planning to go off without a hitch Thursday evening. Andy Fell, a UC Davis spokesman, said late Thursday afternoon that the institution had no plans to stop the screening planned by the student-run Entertainment Council at a chemistry lecture hall.

“We don’t approve or disapprove of content brought by the student program,” Fell said. “It’s up to them what they show. I’ve seen a few e-mails from people upset about it but not many. I don’t know if this sets precedent for the future. This company spent a lot of money promoting this to college campuses and made these free events. I think this is a one-off publicity stunt to market a movie. I don’t think this will repeat itself.”

Thongxy Phansopha, UC Davis junior and director of the Entertainment Council, said he hoped the event would be a “lighthearted” as well as an “educational screening.” He noted that speakers from the university’s Gender and Sexuality Commission will be on hand to lead a discussion about the treatment of women in pornography. In addition, he said extra security would be at the screening to check everyone for proper identification.

“I think people here are mature enough to handle this screening,” said Phansopha, noting that he expects the film to generate a lively discussion about the perceptions of and opinions about adult entertainment. “Some people will come to have fun, and I hope they’ll get educated at the same time.”


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