Civil Libertarians Cry Wolf


Why was it perfectly okay, even virtuous, for grocery stores to refuse to stock nonunion grapes and lettuce in response to pressure from Cesar Chavez and his followers, but it's not at all okay, it's downright un-American, for convenience stores to pull Playboy and Penthouse from their shelves in response to pressure from Jerry Falwell and his followers? Figure it out.

The frothing at the mouth of civil libertarians over the recent decisions of 7-Eleven, Peoples Drug, and others to stop carrying adult magazines is ridiculous—and, ironically, counterproductive of efforts to protect civil liberties. "Censorship!" they cry. Hogwash! Censorship is government prohibition of the publication or sale of materials it deems offensive. A drug store's decision not to carry Playboy is no more censorship than is the decision of a health-food store not to stock cigarettes.

Ah, but one is the printed word, and that makes it different—sacrosanct—some will say. More hogwash! Is it censorship for a newsstand in Peoria not to carry the New York Times because they'd lose money doing so? Of course not. Is it censorship for the left-liberal Nation magazine not to run an article applauding President Reagan's conservative agenda? Of course not. It is not censorship for any private citizen or group of citizens (such as a corporation) to be selective in what they will read, look at, publish, say, offer for sale, advertise, etc.

Civil libertarians are going to cry "Censorship!" once too often over private decisions they don't happen to agree with. And what will happen then when their object of protest really is a government attempt to skirt the First Amendment?

None of this is to say that pornography really is awful, as the forces of righteousness who are so gleeful over the porn purveyors' actions would have us believe. We haven't seen credible evidence linking porn and crime; and if some varieties of what is loosely lumped under the heading "pornography" are corrosive of important social values (say, the family), it still is simply not the business of the government of a free people.

Nor is this to condone the Justice Department's campaign against the sellers of adult magazines and videos. Early this year, the Attorney General's rapidly-becoming-infamous Commission on Pornography sent off letters to the likes of Warner Publishing, Southland Corp. (7-Elevens' parent), and Waldenbooks advising that it had "received testimony alleging that your company is involved in the sale or distribution of pornography" and "allowing" the companies an opportunity to respond to the charges. This was an outrageous attempt to intimidate.

Southland Corp., for one, said that it did not pull its adult magazines on this basis. Maybe so, maybe not. But their decision is not censorship. Civil libertarians' should point their fire in the right direction.