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A nationwide boycott of pornography might do what the courts can't

There are certain things a free society must do for itself to remain effective and strong. One of these is to maintain its moral fiber. Despite good intentions, ethics can't be legislated or litigated effectively without a broad-based, voluntary public mandate. And this mandate must not exceed the bounds of constitutional rights.

Lately pornography has mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar business across the United States, and the time has come for the American people to crack down on it. One effective means within the law could be a nationwide boycott of obscene books, films, and sexual paraphernalia. This shouldn't trigger the formation of vigilante groups. Nor should it encourage the kind of broad censorship of books and materials which contain words or phrases only reactionaries would consider objectionable.

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Of course, it is very difficult to pinpoint a definition of what is and what is not pornographic. Courts grapple with this question repeatedly. Local standards must be taken into consideration. For good or bad, what is regarded as literature in San Francisco might be viewed as smut in Oshkosh.

But, even with all these caveats, citizens' action is proper and within the law. Among other things, a broad-based grass-roots campaign should enlist media support to expose the negative effects of pornography, including the possibility that the material stirs customers to violence. Stores that sell obscene material should be reminded of the penalties for making ''adult'' books available to minors - and the stores should be boycotted. Schools, churches, and community groups should appeal to higher instincts in diverting interests from obscenity. And all this, again, must take place within the context of responsible and lawful citizenship - it mustn't smack of vigilantism.

Some official estimates indicate that Americans spend over $5 billion each year for pornographic materials. Ironically, at the same time millions of dollars also are being spent to snuff out their distribution. Citizens across the land are campaigning for anti-obscenity statutes in their communities, bringing lawsuits against publishers and distributors of offensive movies and literature, and lobbying for legislation to snuff out the pornography trade.

All of this is producing mixed results. Courts and lawmakers say they want to clean up smut. But some have serious concerns about, at the same time, curtailing freedom of speech or otherwise opening the door to widespread censorship of books and materials which may be offensive to some but not to others.

Anti-pornography activists hailed a landmark 1982 Supreme Court decision which upheld a state of New York ban against the use of children in sexually explicit films, photographs, and performances. The court said exploitation of children is illegal, even when the end product does not meet the legal test of obscenity, which prior to the ruling had been considered the important judicial yardstick. According to legal pundits, the ruling also legitimized similar statutes in some 20 other states. The court said, in effect, that pornography in and of itself is not protected by the Constitution.

During 1983, antipornography laws and ordinances didn't fare well in the courts. A Miami judge, for instance, ruled that free speech guarantees were violated by a measure outlawing soft-core pornographic films on cable television , and he struck it down. He ruled that, because the service isn't free, the viewer holds the key to the standard: He can reject what he deems offensive by refusing to subscribe to the service.

An interesting new argument which treats pornography as a form of sexual discrimination against women is the basis of a Minneapolis ordinance narrowly approved by the city council at year's end. However, after much soul-searching, Mayor Donald Fraser vetoed the measure because he felt it was so broad it bordered on censorship. Further action is expected.

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The rationale behind the law is highly significant. Its framers see much of pornography as degrading to women - particularly that with a theme of domination of females. Feminists read this as affecting attitudes of both men and women about individual rights.

During hearings on the proposed ordinance, several women witnesses testified about instances in which they felt obscene books and movies tended to arouse men to violence against them. Several recent academic studies tend to support their view.

As communities continue to grapple with legal definitions that will combat pornography without limiting free speech, the message is clear: Pornography needs to be viewed as an affront to the individual dignity and decency of men, women, and children.

We have a right to voice our protests against the appearance of so-called adult book stores and ''skin flicks'' in our communities. We can use proper, legal weapons against them, including zoning ordinances, civil rights laws, and measures protecting children.

But beyond that we must flatly refuse to finance the obscenity business. The free-enterprise system, through the laws of supply and demand, can be very effective. Purveyors of pornography may be able to overturn local measures and court orders on freedom-of-speech grounds. But they won't be able to stay in business without a substantial number of customers. A boycott against obscene stuff isn't merely within our legal rights - it's a moral responsibility.

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