If you're looking for the quick charge provided by what the trade knows as "sophisticate" magazines -- Playboy, Penthouse, Gallery, Playgirl, Genesis -- chances are the looking will take a bit longer these days. Thanks to boycotts by groups advocating "decency," and to some strong-arm tactics by the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, these magazines have been disappearing from the racks in convenience stores at a rapid rate. No doubt this is dandy for "decency"; but it is not quite so salubrious for the rights of free speech that are guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In directing their energies against these magazines, the National Federation for Decency and other groups are not without cause. The publishers of Playboy, Penthouse and their ilk make grand noises about the high journalistic quality of their magazines, but the fact is that beneath the thin veneer of pretense they are skin rags, pure and simple. By offering lavish fees they are able to lure certain well-known writers between their covers, but what really matters is what their pictorial displays show between -- or on top of -- the sheets. They're scummy magazines, all the more so as they have become ever more explicit in their depiction of female anatomy.
Beyond that, it is quite true that convenience stores provide an especially public forum for the display and sale of these magazines. The convenience stores are the true marketplace of the '80s, one-stop shops at which just about everybody purchases just about everything, from motor oil to milk to toys to newspapers to rental videotapes. Convenience stores are heavily patronized by children, who use them as after-school hangouts where they can inhale junk food and play video games. They can also eyeball the flesh in Playboy and Penthouse, if those luscious publications are in the stores' magazine displays.
All of which is true, but none of which justifies the bullying to which the convenience stores are being subjected by the guardians of righteousness. In the first place, the vigilantes' priorities are oddly out of kilter. It is true that these "sophisticate" magazines have large circulations and are highly visible, but in the sleazy world of pornography they are strictly minor-league. They may be dirty, but they are not obscene; with the exception of the zealots, virtually all adult Americans seem to feel that they do not violate contemporary standards of obscenity as established by the Supreme Court, and they almost certainly would pass any legal challenge. The really obscene material is the stuff sold in pornographic bookstores; the "decency" campaign doesn't even begin to address itself to these establishments, perhaps because doing so would produce less publicity.
A second objection is closely related to the first: There is almost no evidence that the American public supports this campaign to remove the "sophisticate" magazines from the convenience stores or, for that matter, any other stores. To the contrary, surveys taken by two convenience store chains revealed a strikingly high degree of public tolerance for the magazines; one produced a decision nearly 2 to 1 in favor of continuing to sell them, while in the other 84 percent of those surveyed said they had no objection to selling them in convenience stores. As further evidence of public sentiment on the question, it is worth noting that an antiobscenity referendum failed recently in Maine, also by 2 to 1.
The voters in Maine decided that they preferred the First Amendment to the suppression of allegedly obscene material, but the National Federation for Decency and its allies leave little doubt that they could not care less about the right to publish and read what one wishes. They are picketing and boycotting the convenience stores -- exercising raw economic coercion, that is to say -- with the clear intention of intimidating the stores into removing the magazines, and they are being disturbingly successful: This year alone, according to a report last week in The New York Times, 8,000 convenience stores have decided to stop selling the "sophisticates," bringing the total to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 in three years.
One of the companies that caved in is Southland Corp., which owns about 4,500 7-Eleven stores. It claims that it did so because of testimony before the pornography commission connecting obscenity and violence, but the more plausible explanation is that it acted after receiving a letter from the commission stating that it would be listed in the commission's report as participating in "the sale or distribution of pornography." A number of other convenience store and drugstore chains received the same letter, and several decided that they'd rather drop Playboy and Penthouse than be brushed with the tar of pornography.
It goes without saying that the commission's action was extortion. Not merely did the commission mistakenly and irresponsibly categorize the "sophisticates" as pornography, but it used the bully pulpit granted to it by the attorney general to do just that: to bully the chains with the threat of public embarrassment. It's a tactic that would suit a totalitarian state quite nicely; but it seems rather out of place in a country that grants its citizens broad rights untrammeled by the state -- though not, perhaps, quite so out of place in a country under an administration whose indifference to the Bill of Rights needs no additional documentation.
Apparently the point cannot be reiterated too often: Playboy and Penthouse may be sleazy, but even sleaze has rights. One does not have to like what they publish in order to acknowledge, indeed vigorously defend, their right to publish it. But the campaign to drive them out of the convenience stories, whether waged by the Commission on Pornography or the National Federation for Decency, is a transparent attempt to abridge that right by extralegal means. Its organizers may talk about "decency," but their tactics have all the moral and legal trappings of vigilante justice.
If the members of these organizations choose not to read Playboy and Penthouse, they are entirely free to make that choice. They are also free to urge that stores not display these magazines where children can see their covers or browse through their pages; many stores and newsstands have done this for years, being fully aware that the magazines' covers can be offensive to some customers. But when the vigilantes exert naked economic pressure to restrict distribution of the magazines, they infringe on your rights and mine every bit as much as they do on the rights of publishers and editors. If they get away with their attack on the "sophisticates," sooner or later it will be open season on everything else.