The latest bulletins from the obscenity and pornography front indicate nothing so much as that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In Annapolis and Washington, spectators at the great smut show have been treated to everything from blatant political grandstanding to sober analysis of conflicting interests, but what it all comes down to is that nobody has moved very far from Square One. After several days of sound, fury and even a measure of common sense, the sex-for-sale issue is as muddied, and muddled, as ever.
Of the goings-on at the Maryland House of Representatives, there is nothing charitable to be said. This august body has approved legislation that would ban the sale to minors of recordings containing lyrics alleged to be obscene. That the bill is probably unconstitutional and almost certainly unenforceable proved no deterrent to the assembled honorables, who in their wisdom know a made-to-order chance for unprincipled political gain when they see one.
The dirty-lyrics bill offered the legislators a golden opportunity to put themselves squarely on the side of Mom and apple pie, and they seized it. Nothing could be safer than coming out against dirty songs; it's ever so much easier than devising a workable, equitable response to the savings and loan crisis, a challenge that thus far has left the Maryland General Assembly grasping at straws. But slapping the likes of Twisted Sister and Prince is child's play; into the bargain it looks wonderful in the press, where the legislators can parade themselves as champions of moral rectitude.
Fortunately the Maryland legislature is bicameral, and the state Senate has the opportunity to undo the irresponsibility of the state House. Probably the most sensible course is simply to ignore the bill, secure in the knowledge that come session's end it will die the death it so richly deserves. It would be rather refreshing, though, to see members of the Senate rise to denounce the bill for what it is: a sleazy, cynical exercise in political opportunism, an irresponsible reaction to a nonexistent crisis.
But to say that there is no crisis in rock music lyrics is not, need it be said, to say that there is no cause for concern about obscenity in popular music or anything else. With good reason, there has been a popular reaction against the let-it-all-hang-out excesses of the '60s and '70s, an effort to regain some of the moral ground that was lost during an era when exhibitionism and exploitation acquired unprecedented legitimacy. Serious people -- among whom the offending members of the Maryland House most certainly cannot be numbered -- seem now to agree that in a decent society there must be some restraint on the indulgence of sexual appetites and the expression of sexual imagery.
It is far easier to agree on what must be done, though, than it is to agree on how to do it. That was vividly demonstrated last week in two cases decided by the Supreme Court. On Monday it declared unconstitutional an Indianapolis ordinance that sought to attack pornography as discrimination against women, a decision that was immediately interpreted as a setback for the somewhat unlikely antipornography coalition of feminists and religious conservatives. Then, on Tuesday, the court turned right around and ruled that it is within the rights of local governments to restrict blue-movie theaters to specific locations and to forbid their establishment in the community at large -- a decision that was immediately interpreted as a victory, if a rather small one, for the antipornography movement.
At first glance it may seem that the court was contradicting itself, easing off on the pornographers one day and cracking down on them the next, but that is not the case at all. What the two decisions say is that the question of pornography and obscenity is extraordinarily complex, one that can only be resolved -- to the extent it can be resolved at all -- on a case-by-case basis. Certain attacks on it are within constitutional boundaries and can be approved; others, no matter how well intentioned, are not and cannot.
The Indianapolis statute -- which its supporters had hoped to establish as a model for legislation elsewhere -- is a classic example of the latter. As a U.S. Court of Appeals said in overturning the law, its "premises" are correct: "Depictions of subordination tend to perpetuate subordination. The subordinate status of women in turn leads to affront and lower pay at work, insult and injury at home, battery and rape on the streets." But though pornography may be an offensive and socially injurious form of speech, it nonetheless has First Amendment protection because "any other answer leaves the government in control of all the institutions of culture, the great censor and director of which thoughts are good for us."
In accepting that judgment without comment, the Supreme Court implicitly agreed that the Indianapolis law, however laudable its purposes, infringed upon free speech. But in the second case the court said, in effect, that though speech must be free it is not necessary that everybody be required to listen to it. Renton, a city of about 30,000 in Washington, has a zoning ordinance that limits "adult" movie theaters to a specific area of the city. Two theater operators challenged the statute on the grounds that it offered them no "commercially viable" locations, but the court said the city was within its rights; the First Amendment gives even pornographers "a reasonable opportunity to open and operate," but "the city's pursuit of its zoning interests here was unrelated to the suppression of free expression."
However disagreeable that ruling may be to First Amendment purists, it is a reasonable compromise between the right of pornographers to peddle their wares and the right of a community to safeguard what Justice William Rehnquist called "the quality of urban life." As has been satisfactorily demonstrated in Baltimore, Boston and other cities, it is quite possible to limit pornographic performances and materials to specific neighborhoods without barring them to consenting adults or, for that matter, without making them unduly inaccessible; the Block is a stone's throw from Baltimore's City Hall, and the Combat Zone is a two-minute walk from the Boston Common.
There is nothing inconsistent about these two decisions; the court is saying that pornography has constitutional protection but that it is not absolute, that there are limits a community can place upon its dissemination in order to protect the rights of those who do not wish to be exposed to it. This is not the final answer to the difficult business of sexually explicit material, but it is a step, however hesitant, in the right direction; the Maryland legislation, by contrast, is shameless opportunism, pure and simple.