Pushing Pornography Out Of Print

This social blight is not protected by the First Amendment.

Many believers have been cowed into silence by a half-truth that crops up again and again in North American mass communications media. It is repeated so often that it has begun to sound like whole truth. Censorship, we are told, is undemocratic.

This is partly true. Freedom is curtailed when serious ideas that happen to run contrary to those of the prevailing authority are suppressed to avoid their consideration. The recent roundup and detention in Poland of opinion leaders who declined to hew to the party line is a tragic current illustration. A democracy prospers when the best thinking of all its citizens may be expressed and ideas are accepted or rejected on their merits.

But it is also partly false. A democracy is an intricately functioning kind of civilization, as opposed to anarchy or despotism. Its citizens are entitled to protect themselves from that which threatens their corporate functioning and welfare as a free people. If they do not defend themselves they will eventually lose their freedoms and their treasured social order. Sooner or later the fragile institutions of democracy will become overrun by the hostile forces they failed to check. Censorship directed to eradicating diversity of thought is a threat to democracy. But so is failure to censor that which preys on and poisons a society.

That is why limiting the proliferation of obscene and pornographic materials constitutes no threat to a society’s legitimate freedoms.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution decrees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

But in the 1973 case, Miller v. California, the Court declared: “This much has been categorically settled by the Court, that obscene material is unprotected by the First Amendment.

“The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.… But the public portrayal of hard-core sexual conduct for its own sake, and for the ensuing commercial gain is a different matter.”

In an earlier case, Roth v. U.S., 1957, the Court’s reasoning was more explicit: “There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech,” it said, “the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene.… It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.…”

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So Far, so good. But the courts have not done so well at buttressing this principle because they have proved unable to define obscenity. They have thrown the task of deciding what is obscene back to communities, asking them to determine whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards,” would find that the material, “taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.”

Recently, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has moved to more helpful means of assisting communities in the task it delegated to them. At one point, the Court indicated that prosecutors needed to prove that obscene works were “utterly without redeeming social value.” But now its opinions advise that it is constitutional to prosecute pornographers in a community if the defense is unable to prove that the challenged work has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

What does all this mean for believers concerned about morality in their communities? It means moving off the defensive. You can point out that free speech rights under the First Amendment have never been absolute. No one has the right to slander, libel, or shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

You can insist that antipornography legislation is not censorship but regulation of community order and morality. You can mobilize latent community support for decency by making it aware of the extent to which its residents are poisoned by smut and commercialized debauchery, and by providing leadership in articulating majority community values.

You can press for enforcement of existing antiobscenity ordinances by providing public scrutiny of smut stores and massage parlors. Take pictures of people entering, license numbers of customers parking there. Publish this information in the papers.

You can monitor magazines in stores with which you do business—especially convenience stores. Make sure managers see the worst from their own racks; many don’t realize the nature of the material they carry. Tell them you will take your trade elsewhere if they don’t remove the pornography.

You may complain to the Federal Communications Commission (1919 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20554) about indecent material on radio, television, or cable TV. In 1978 a man and his son filed a complaint with the FCC after hearing indecent language on a New York radio station. The FCC filed suit against the broadcaster, Pacifica Foundation, and won. Because these media are accessible to children and pervasive they require special protection.

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You can appeal to the Reagan administration to have the FCC regulate cable television. The FCC has claimed cable is outside its sphere since it is not broadcast, although it is transmitted to local broadcasters by satellite.

You can call on Attorney General William French Smith to give priority to enforcing antipornography laws.

Perhaps the best way to begin is by informing yourself about the extent of pornography and learning how to combat it. An excellent series is appearing next month on television: a five-part Christian Broadcasting Network series entitled “X-pose.” Make sure that you and several from your church watch it. Then let us all take the offensive!

Others Say

Let’s Get Religion in the Picture

Years ago we decided that certain forms of discrimination are unacceptable in this country, and we are gradually working our way toward a society where racial discrimination is a thing of the past. We are doing the same thing in the area of discrimination because of national origin.

But there is one very important institution in our society that still practices religious discrimination. That institution is network television. It takes no genius to notice the treatment religion, religious people, and religious values receive on network TV.

To my knowledge, not a single current network television series portrays anyone as having a continuing, meaningful relationship to a religious body in a modern-day setting. More than 50 million Americans go to church regularly—but rarely on television. People make decisions based on Christian principles, but rarely on television. People pray, but rarely on television. Every community in America has local churches and synagogues that contribute to the good of their local communities and this country; but they don’t exist on television. The Christian faith has healed the alcoholic, rehabilitated the criminal, rejoined the broken home, helped the teen-aged drug addict find purpose, and undergirded the ethics of business people. But you would never know this by watching commercial network television. Christians, because of their religious values, adopt children no one else wants. But rarely does network television show that side of Christianity.

Christians have built hospitals, schools, and other institutions of help and compassion. Christians have fought and died for this country and for the freedom of all—including non-Christians. Christians have served at all levels of our government. Our laws are rooted in the Christian concept of justice. But one would never know all this by watching television.

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A small number of people have used television to educate the viewing public to the perception they want the public to have of religious people and religious values. But nothing we see on television is there by accident. Everything is there for a purpose. Network television programs have taken the religious values of marital fidelity, hard and honest work, the rejection of violence, a commitment to clean speech, love of God, and stewardship, and ridiculed, belittled, or ignored them. No one denies that all Christians have their faults, but continually to present Christians, their values, and their culture in a negative light is a gross injustice.

Such discrimination against Christians is no longer acceptable. It is repugnant to all fair-minded people. It is an insult to people of all religions.

Fred Friendly, professor of broadcast journalism at Columbia University and former president of CBS News, once said: “Broadcasting is going to determine what kind of people we are.” That being true, the kinds of role models currently being offered to us by television are not acceptable. Let me say to the networks that they can either stop this discrimination on their own because it is wrong and unacceptable to all fair-minded Americans, or they will eventually have to stop it because it is economically unattractive.

The networks are free, of course, to continue this ugly discrimination against religious people and values. At the same time, we are free to call this discrimination to the attention of Christians and other religious groups. We are equally free to ask Christians and all fair-minded people to withhold their financial support from advertisers, networks, and production companies that continue to practice religious discrimination.

What we may have in this situation is a very small minority of people, strategically placed, who are basically antireligious—certainly nonreligious—using their positions to undermine the traditional Judeo-Christian value system and change it to one that is more reflective of their own secular supremacist viewpoint.

It is time for a change, and quickly.


Mr. Wildmon, a United Methodist minister in Mississippi, is chairman of the Coalition for Better Television.

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