A federal judge Thursday struck down a Los Angeles County order that forbade firefighters from reading or possessing Playboy in firehouses, ruling that the anti-sexual-harassment measure violated constitutional guarantees of free speech and press.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson issued an order barring the county from enforcing its ban on Playboy against Fire Department Capt. Steven W. Johnson, who brought a lawsuit challenging the policy. The judge found that the ban placed “severe limitations on Johnson’s First Amendment rights.”
County officials failed to prove their argument “that quiet reading of Playboy contributes to a sexually harassing atmosphere,” Wilson announced at a hearing in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles.
Attorneys for the county said it is likely they will appeal Wilson’s ruling.
“It’s a win for both sides,” said Johnson, a 27-year veteran who was represented by ACLU and Playboy attorneys. “Because now both sides can choose what they want to read.”
Johnson, a resident of Corona del Mar, said he plans to have a copy of Playboy in hand when he returns to work Monday at his station in Lake Los Angeles, in the far northeastern corner of the Antelope Valley.
Fire Department officials banned Playboy and other magazines featuring pictures of nude or skimpily dressed women from all work locations in 1992, saying the measure was needed to prevent development of a “sexually charged environment” for the department’s 11 women firefighters who work with about 2,400 men.
During Tuesday’s trial, one county official testified that the ban would also apply to certain issues of Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated magazines that contained pictures of nude or partially nude women.
Whether county fire officials will apply Wilson’s ruling to all magazines remains unknown, because the judge’s order specifies only Playboy.
Johnson’s attorneys argued that the ban violated his constitutional rights and that while the county may have had good intentions, the policy was vague and overly broad.
“The department said they didn’t want Capt. Johnson reading something they didn’t want him thinking about,” said ACLU attorney Paul L. Hoffman after the hearing Thursday. “When you start allowing that kind of thought control, you’re going down the wrong track.”
Hoffman, one of four attorneys to represent Johnson, said the case should send a message to employers that they must take workers’ rights into account when formulating similar policies.
“This should send a message around the country that they (employers) can go far to prevent sexual harassment, but that they can’t trample on First Amendment rights.”
Firefighters, who were ordered by the department’s headquarters not to comment on the decision, had mixed reactions--and not for attribution.
“Our department was totally wrong,” one captain said. “There are nude pictures in National Geographic. Will we ban that next?”
“You won’t find a whole bunch of people angry about this decision,” said another male firefighter.
“You get 15 days off a month, you can read whatever you want to read then,” said a female firefighter. “I work at a nice, nice station, but they’re not all so nice. There are some stations where you know you are walking into a bunch of trouble. There are posters up of sexy women, and I really don’t like to work around that.”
However, she added that she thought the whole debate “is a big joke--there is Christian material that isn’t supposed to be circulated around the station either” but is.
Another firefighter protested that the publicity given the dispute will mislead the public. “Where I work, we don’t have time to read anything. We don’t just read dirty books, play cards and sit around the station. We responded to more than 11,000 calls last year.”
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the ACLU, declared Thursday’s ruling a victory for Johnson and his desire to quietly read Playboy at his station.
“We applaud the county for developing a policy on sexual harassment,” Ripston said. “But the right to read is something the First Amendment protects.”
Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, described Wilson’s ruling as “simply wrong.”
“What the ACLU and this judge have shown is that living, breathing women’s rights count less in this system,” Bruce said.
The judge ruled that “simply alleging the need to avoid sexual harassment is not enough. The county bears the burden of showing that real--not imagined--disruption is threatened.”
Wilson said there is no evidence that Johnson intended to commit acts that several women firefighters expressed fears of in declarations they filed with the court. Those acts included making lewd comments, displaying the magazine’s pictures to unwilling viewers, or reading magazines with nude pictures of women on the cover, all of which are prohibited under other provisions of the county’s sexual harassment policy.
The judge concluded that the county can “not ban the reading of Playboy simply because they disagree with the manner in which Playboy portrays women.”
Les Tolnai, a senior deputy county counsel who defended the ban, asked the judge to delay putting the order into effect to give the county time to appeal. Wilson advised Tolnai to file a written motion.
In an interview, Tolnai said he was disappointed with Wilson’s ruling, and that concerns persist that allowing magazines such as Playboy in firehouses will create an environment in which women will be sexually harassed. “The department is going to make every effort to manage its employees so that doesn’t occur,” Tolnai said. “But this will it make more difficult.”
County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said he agreed. “We believe and still feel that we were within the law in providing a non-hostile work environment,” Freeman said. “My understanding and experience . . . is that women can and do feel pressure and take offense around that type of material.
“Instead of looking at them with respect and as members of an emergency team, they are looked at in a sexual way” by men who read the magazine, Freeman said.
In a written copy of his findings, Wilson found that Playboy contains “matter of public concern” and that firehouses offer sufficient privacy for a firefighter to read the magazine without exposing its contents to an “unwitting onlooker.”
Wilson also wrote that the policy restricted Johnson’s rights because it banned him from reading Playboy during his relaxation time at the fire station--a place that serves as his home for several days at a time--giving him no opportunity to exercise his freedom of expression.
Times staff writer Chip Johnson contributed to this story.