Pornography and Civil Rights

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider again on Tuesday a measure that would attempt to clamp down on pornography by clamping down on everyone's civil liberties. Under the proposed ordinance, which is similar to one that was declared unconstitutional in Indianapolis, any woman would have the right to sue the seller of any material that she deemed offensive to women. The resulting spate of litigation against everything from hard-core smut (the intended target) to feminist literature (a possible target) promises to be a bonanza for lawyers but a disaster for everyone else.

The issue, which has cropped up in several places around the country before coming to Los Angeles, is usually portrayed as a clash between feminists and civil libertarians. This turns out to be inaccurate, for a large number of feminists have sided with the civil libertarians, arguing that women have more to fear from such an ordinance than they have to gain by it. They see the clear danger in allowing individuals to use the courts to intimidate the sellers and manufacturers of published material. Once unleashed, there is no telling where this censorship would end.

Furthermore, these feminists say, there is no convincing evidence that pornography, however offensive it is, leads to violence against women or to the oppression of women by men. Of all the social and institutional difficulties that women continue to face, pornography is not high on the list. Many people may not like it, but the danger that pornography presents is exaggerated. And the majority should never be allowed to restrict what others may read or think about.

The proposed ordinance, by the way, is not analogous to a newspaper's declining to accept sexually explicit advertisements. When a newspaper adopts such a policy, as this one has done, it is not banning the publication of the advertisement altogether or prohibiting the showing of the X-rated movie. All that the newspaper is saying is that it does not care to publish the advertisement, which would clash with the tone of the newspaper. But the advertiser is free to publish the ad somewhere else or to publish it himself. The county ordinance would make possible a complete ban on the advertisement and on the movie itself.

The anti-pornography measure before the supervisors is ill considered and dangerous. The county counsel, DeWitt W. Clinton, told the supervisors that it has serious constitutional problems. The ordinance should be defeated if it gets to the floor. Better yet, it should be quietly withdrawn and forgotten.

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