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Does government's pornography report pass the `obscenity' test?

THERE'S a new theory about ``censorship'' in connection with the controversial report of the United States Justice Department's Commission on Pornography. It holds that the findings themselves, in effect, are being censored. Ever since a blue-ribbon panel to deal with pornography was convened in the spring of 1985 by US Attorney General Edwin Meese III, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other liberal groups have warned that almost any resulting recommendations for legal action would inevitably lead to a stifling of constitutionally guaranteed free speech.

And once the commission's 92 recommendations were announced this past July, these claims of censorship were renewed. In fact, several volumes now are rolling off the presses attacking the Meese study for subverting the Constitution. One is funded by Penthouse, a men's magazine that takes the view that virtually all written and visual depictions of sex are protected by the First Amendment.

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There is also the interesting counter charge, however, that the pornography report itself is the victim of censorship -- by the media in general and by publishers in particular.

The main complainant is Michael J. McManus, a respected syndicated columnist on religion and ethics, who covered most of the hearings of the commission and says he was chagrined by the absence of the mainstream press. McManus, a former Time magazine correspondent who has a reputation for fairness, felt that the commission was getting a ``bum rap'' from the media. He thinks commentators didn't really evaluate the testimony but jumped to the conclusion that the panel was strongly biased by right-wing influences and hence could not possibly be credible.

The journalist was further troubled that, although the resulting two-volume report was available through the US Government Printing Office, the public would not have widespread access to it. So McManus offered to help peddle it to a commercial publisher for broader distribution.

To his further chagrin, major publishers shunned it. But McManus finally found a taker in little-known Rutledge Hill Press of Nashville, which usually specializes in regional publications and cookbooks.

To be sure, McManus has some priority interest in this book. He has written a lengthy introduction analyzing its findings. And he admits that he agrees with the vast majority of the commission's recommendations.

He makes several points well worth noting, however. Among them: that the commission goes out of its way to stress that censorship is not the way to curb pornography; and that contrary to some well-publicized notions that the panel's membership was a who's who of the political right, it was actually composed of a political cross-section -- four conservatives, three liberals, and four middle-of-the-roaders.

Yet, on the other side, there are things that should be mentioned: The pornography panel was convened in a hostile atmosphere -- at a time when Attorney General Meese was openly attacking the courts for taking a permissive stance toward issues like pornography, abortion, and criminal behavior. Reacting, civil liberties groups and others were accusing the Justice Department of subordinating individual liberties to a partisan agenda.

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Not surprisingly, ACLU's sharp criticism of early drafts of the commission report -- and conservative groups' staunch defense of it -- received ample press attention. In fact, the release of the report itself was almost anticlimactic because many of the issues had already been well orchestrated in media news reports.

Also, the attorney general did not at once openly embrace the panel's findings. And only in the last few weeks has the Justice Department outlined a plan of action that seems to implement some of the commission's recommendations. The Meese program would crack down mainly on hard-core pornography -- by forming a task force to help prosecute ``organized crime enterprises'' controlling pornography, by pushing for laws that would bar anyone under 21 from performing in porn films, by banning ``obscene'' cable television shows, by seizing porn sales proceeds, and by closing down ``dial-a-porn'' services.

One of the most controversial findings of the commission is that which links male exposure to sexually violent materials with an increase in aggressive behavior toward women. Some insist that there is a direct causal relationship. But others say there is no scientific evidence for this conclusion.

Perhaps most ironic is that the commission's report includes numerous graphic passages that, even though used as illustrations, might be considered pornographic.

In fact, the newly published Rutledge Hill version carries the warning: ``Contains extremely explicit content.... This book should not be purchased or read by minors.''

Pornography is obviously of vital concern to all citizens. Curbing it -- particularly in relation to that which preys on young children -- should be everybody's business.

Charges and countercharges from the political left and the political right are not going to solve this problem. Sensitivity to the overall needs of society could well help find a balance between protecting personal freedoms and upholding commonly held standards of decency.

A Thursday column

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