In May 1985, the governing council of the two student unions at the University of Wisconsin in Madison voted to forbid the sale of Playboy, Penthouse and Playgirl anywhere in its buildings. The magazines were accused by feminists and their supporters of portraying women in a false and demeaning light. Since those attending the flagship campus of the state's public higher education system could not be trusted to shun these publications of their own free will, the decision had to be made for them by this governing body of students and staff members. (The students are in the majority.)
An outside dissenter, Eunice Edgar, executive director of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union, noted that "it will be a sad day for us all if a significant portion of the women's movement is turned into a vehicle for repression in alliance with the religious right wing." On the other hand, women staff members of the student unions charged that forcing them to sell such magazines was a form of sexual harassment.
In November 1985, the university's chancellor, Irving Shain, was finally heard from. The beleaguered magazines must be summoned back from exile, he ordered. The university community, after all, is sensitive to "any restraints on individual expression." The chancellor told the student union council that if it wanted to change the way it selects magazines for sale, it had to come up with a set of guidelines that would not offend the university's devotion to individual expression.
In appreciation and admiration, the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union gave Chancellor Shain an award for lifting the siege of the First Amendment at the Madison campus.
It wasn't until May of this year that the student council was able to forward a set of magazine-selection criteria to the chancellor. As I can attest from reading some of the council minutes, the members had worked awfully hard to figure out a way to keep Playboy, Penthouse and Playgirl from contaminating the campus while also not violating the university's sensitivity to individual expression.
The council's ingenious plan calls for ending all sales of all monthly magazines. It can hardly be said that Playboy and its raffish monthly companions have been singled out when The Atlantic, Harper's, Ebony, Bicycling, Scientific American and Ms. are also henceforth denied access to the premises.
On May 15, Chancellor Shain, in a letter to the council deliberators, said he would approve their decision. But a student heretic on the council, Lee Buttala, was troubled. "Hidden censorship," the student told the Wisconsin State Journal, "is just as scary as open censorship, and I think that's what we're doing."
Eunice Edgar of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union also did not take kindly to the new screening plan nor to the chancellor's affirmation of it. "We're trying to figure out a way," she told me, "to take back that award we gave him." Shain now tells me the new policy is being reviewed.
Surviving the purge because they are weeklies and biweeklies are such periodicals as Time, Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.
In an editorial, the Madison Capital Times reminded the student union council and the chancellor that the student unions "are part of a public institution, an institution dedicated to free inquiry." The newspaper added that this brave new plan was still aimed at getting rid of the Playboy crowd, but in trying to do that, the council had once again made clear that as soon as censorship begins, "it's hard to start drawing the lines to stop it."
A very interested party in all this is Erwin Knoll, a passionate defender of everyone's right to free expression, including his own, an editor of the Madison-based political magazine, The Progressive. It is a monthly. Writing in the Capital Times, Knoll noted the front-page headline in that paper a few days before: "Porn Magazines Again Banned at UW Unions."
Knoll pointed out that The Progressive has been called many things in its 77 years, but this was the first time it had been characterized as a "porn magazine." He suggested, to spread the fairness around, that "some enterprising soul . . . get in touch with Al Goldstein, the intrepid publisher of New York's raunchy Screw magazine, and persuade him to put his periodical on sale at the Union newsstands. It's a weekly, so it must be . . . wholesome."
When the student union committee to set policy on magazine sales submitted its report to Chancellor Shain, its members observed with pride that the policy would honor and reflect "the University's commitment to intellectual freedom." In some circles, that statement might be regarded as obscene -- though not, of course, actionable.