WASHINGTON – Forget “Fear the Turtle.” The new game on the University of Maryland campus might better be called “Muzzle the Turtle.”
But while everyone seems to want to play, no one can say just what the rules will be.
Backed by a legal opinion that the university can “prohibit vulgar, profane and indecent language at stadium events” without infringing on fans’ First Amendment rights, student and university leaders hope to have such a policy in place in time for the first football game of the season on Sept. 4.
Exactly what guidelines will be in place, as well as how effective they will be, may not be settled until kickoff. But all involved insist something must be done.
“The solution needs to come from within the student body,” said David Krieger, the chairman of a 16-student committee organized to develop a student self-regulating policy. “We need to recognize there is a problem, and it needs to be policed by the student body.”
A university spokeswoman agreed, saying Friday that the school wanted this to be primarily a “grassroots affair.”
School officials began looking for ways to control unruly students at sporting events after a Jan. 21 basketball game between Maryland and Duke University, when a national television audience heard vulgar chants directed at Blue Devils’ players in the waning moments of a Terrapin loss.
Besides the formation of the committee that Krieger heads, the school asked the state’s chief counsel for educational affairs what its legal options were.
John Anderson responded in a March 17 letter to university President C.D. Mote Jr. that any policy must be “neither over-broad nor unacceptably vague,” and must not violate First Amendment rights to free speech. But it could be done.
“In my view, the university may constitutionally adopt a carefully drafted policy that prohibits offensive speech” at sporting events, Anderson wrote.
He based his argument primarily on a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Cohen v. California, which prohibited criminal penalties for offensive words but allowed for some types of non-criminal regulation.
“The reasoning in Cohen suggests that given the objections that have been voiced to the language at the Duke game, UMCP (University of Maryland, College Park) could adopt a policy to prohibit vulgar, profane and indecent language at stadium events where ‘captive auditors,’ including children, would be subjected to it,” he said.
Krieger said Anderson’s guidelines allow many ways to deal with the problem, which he said has been caused by an “extreme minority” of students. He proposed a two-pronged approach — first changing the social environment, then providing a deterrent for those students that continue to be unruly.
“There is a perception that profanity is correlated with intensity at basketball games,” he said. “If they (students) realize that they can have a home-court advantage without profanity, we will have some progress.”
Tim Daly, president of the student body, was not surprised by Anderson’s advice and was glad student leaders will have a say in the final plan.
But Daly pointed out that bad behavior happens at college campuses across the country, and at Maryland has not been isolated to just the Duke basketball game.
“For students, it was their equivalent of the Howard Dean scream,” he said, adding he has seen improvement in student behavior since then.
Maryland alumnus Steve Hyman was at the Duke game in January. Hyman, president of “Gary’s Fastbreakers,” a booster club for the men’s basketball program, said his reaction to the students’ chanting would have been different had his 11-year-old daughter been at the game with him.
“You don’t want to curb student enthusiasm, because it does so much for the atmosphere,” he said. “I’m all for students expressing themselves. But when you get to a point, something has to be done.”
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