The CDL and Playboy
We have met Father Lawler on a couple of occasions in the ten years since we began publishing Playboy. The first time was at our request; the second was at his. He's a relatively young man—about our own age, we would judge—handsome, bright and disarmingly personable.
Our first meeting came in the early years of Playboy's young life. We had just begun to go after advertising in a serious way and were running a series of full-page ads in Advertising Age, illustrated by LeRoy Neiman and telling the story, through statistics, of Playboy's quality readership. We received word from an Ad Age exec that a complaint had been lodged with them by a priest, who objected to their accepting advertising from us. The Ad Age exec was polite, but firm, in his position that they must accept all legitimate advertising from responsible companies. That resolved the immediate problem, but we decided a personal meeting with Father Lawler might serve some useful purpose, since, at best, we might convince him that we were sincerely dedicated in our attempt to make Playboy the best men's magazine in the nation (even then our dreams were lofty); and, at the very least, a personal meeting should convince him that we were not, as we thought he might suspect, the Devil incarnate.
We called him and arranged to meet for dinner. It was the most warm and cordial meeting, though we were somewhat distressed to learn that he was presently involved in a poison-pen campaign in which Catholic grade-school children were writing letters to a local radio station, as a class assignment, attacking the then most popular disc jockey in Chicago because as Lawler explained it, the radio personality had a large juvenile following and much of his repartee was sexually oriented and too "blue" for the innocent ears of children. Lawler swore that he would be successful in driving the disc jockey off the air, which he never accomplished, although he did give the performer a rather bad time of it for a while.We left that dinner-meeting feeling rather sorry for the disc jockey, but convinced that we had made a friend—if not a convert—who respected our right to a point of view that differed from his own.
It was several years before we heard from Father Lawler again. He asked us to come and see him at his office and we complied. We observed, with some pride, that our promises and predictions regarding the future of Playboy had, in the intervening years, come to pass. He conceded that they had and seemed to feel we were publishing quite a good magazine, though he expressed the wish that we would get a bit more clothing on our Playmate of the Month. What he really wanted to see us about, he explained, was a number of shoddy paperback books that were currently being produced by fly-by-night publishers in and around Chicago. We told him what little we knew about them—which was precious little—and he carried on a bit about the growing "smut market" and its effect upon children, emphasizing his point by pulling from the briefcase he carried with him some decks of playing cards that offered 52 varieties of photographic hard-core pornography to the set. We thought he went through these with just a bit too much enthusiasm, while emphasizing the point of "smut's" evil influence on our youth, but we kept that thought to ourselves and departed as cordially as before.
We remembered these two meetings with Father Lawler when we read about his more recent activities as guardian of the public morals and head of the Chicago CDL, and we couldn't help remembering, as we had after the Keating testimony, what Dr. Benjamin Karpman had had to say about a negatively displaced obsession with obscenity—that crusading against sex is often an unconscious cover-up for an interest in the subject.
Our arrest—on the charge of "publishing and distributing obscene material"—was a surprise, to say the least. It was a surprise, because we knew that Playboy wasn't obscene, and we had enough respect for Corporation Counsel John Melaniphy's legal acumen to be convinced that he knew it, too. Nevertheless, we were arrested—in our home—by not one, but four armed officers of the law. And the television cameras, having previously been cued by the cops, were there to record the event, with the press and radio waiting for us at the police station when we were booked.
During our brief visit to headquarters to post bail, we engaged in friendly conversation with some of the local constabulary and one of the officers offered the information that the man behind the arrest was Father Lawler. Lawler had been there often during the past few months, he said, and always with copies of Playboy. We found ourself wondering what had happened to those decks of pornographic playing cards.
Censorship and the Press
The day after the arrest we received an anonymous tip that, before the warrant was issued, the CDL had sought and received promises of cooperation from the Catholic head of a local radio station and a Catholic editor of one of Chicago's daily newspapers: The station was to begin an immediate, daily anti-smut campaign, in conjunction with CDL, and if the Corporation Counsel arranged our arrest, the newspaper editor allegedly promised to give the story maximum coverage with a strong anti-Playboy slant.
Thus, a conspiracy of censorship was apparently entered into between a phony nonsectarian "citizens" league, the city prosecutor, the manager of a local radio station and the editor of a Chicago newspaper—all representing the viewpoint of a single religious denomination.
We know the editor personally and consider him to be one of the best newspapermen in the city; we frankly doubted, therefore, that the rumor was true. But we remembered that in San Francisco, one of the CDL's preliminary tactical maneuvers was to obtain, in advance, a local newspaper's commitment to actively cooperate in the censorship drive. The newspaper proved so "cooperative" that more liberal forces in the city called it "hysterical," "irresponsible," and a good deal worse.
Morris Lowenthal, a prominent San Francisco attorney and chairman of the Freedom-to-Read Citizen's Committee stated, at a hearing to consider a new anti-smut bill promoted there by the CDL: "Besides the efforts of certain well-known newspapers to increase their circulation by cheap journalism, leading the bandwagon in maintaining that the state laws on obscenity are obsolete and that more stringent measures are required is the largely sectarian League for Decent Literature—a private group whose national office elsewhere in the country has been accused of illegal boycotts and coercion against booksellers and newsstands. Charles H. Keating, the national chairman of this organization, recently asserted that his group is engaged in a 'religious crusade' to enact strict censorship laws and to suppress publications deemed offensive by the League. His charges, for example, that San Francisco is a 'world center of filthy books' and 'the smuttiest of the nation' gained blaring headlines, especially in the News-Call Bulletin, which at the time was striving to increase its circulation by joining forces with Frank Coakley, the Alemada County District Attorney, in his hysterical publicity drive against 'smut.' The San Francisco Chronicle noted, however, that Keating made the same charges against every city that he has visited in the United States."
The obscenity bill was defeated in committee, but the newspaper tirade continued, and a rehearing was scheduled. At the rehearing, Lowenthal was joined by Lawrence Goldberg, attorney representing the American Jewish Conference, and both vigorously opposed the new obscenity statute. They were aided by Democratic Assemblyman Nick Petris of Alameda, whose subjected those testifying for the bill to strict questioning. He got Mrs. Margaret Berry, president of the California Congress of Parent and Teachers, which had lent its support to the passage of the bill, to admit that she was not even familiar with the contents of the proposed statutes.
"I don't have to know all the technicalities," she said.
Petris explained that some measures in the bill could have drastic effects on anyone possessing material which someone else considered obscene, if they cared to turn in the possessor. Petris asked Mrs. Berry if she felt she would have the right to act as a censor if the new bill was enacted.
"If I see a book the law says is obscene, I have a right to be a censor," she said.
Finally, the assistant district attorney of Alameda County testified on behalf of D.A. Frank Coakley, who had been leading the anti-obscenity campaign in California. Under questioning, the assistant district attorney gave his definition of what is obscene: "Anything that is obscene is obscene."
The nationally respected San Francisco Chronicle published a long and thoughtful editorial evaluation of the so-called "anti-smut bills" and stated that they "should be decisively rejected as offensive to fundamental American ideals of freedom and to ordinary common sense.
"The measures resulted from a climate of hysteria engendered by outrageously exaggerated reports that California had become the smut capital of the nation....
"The first widely extravagant attempts at legislation to discourage this imaginary assault upon the youth of the state were patently outrageous even to the authors. The bills have been subsequently amended or re-amended, but they remain vague, contradictory, excessive, in some provisions ridiculous, and in others probably unconstitutional....
"The current attempts at censorship," concluded the Chronicle, "are ridiculous in conception, inept in design, and if permitted to prosper must inevitably work far more harm than they could possibly cure."
The News-Call Bulletin had taken a stand favoring the CDL "anti-smut" campaign at the outset and despite all logic to the contrary, it stayed with that position to the bitter end, countering the Chronicle editorial with a lengthy editorial feature of its own, with the headline: "HOW NEW LAW WOULD FIGHT SMUT."
The Californian branded the article "one of the most warped, distorted, inaccurate pieces of journalism ever to come out of that newspaper." In order to make the new California obscenity law seem reasonable, claimed the editor of The Californian, "the News-Call omitted all the damaging sections from discussion and twisted all those mentioned beyond recognition."
If it happened in San Francisco, it could happen in Chicago. The pattern seemed the same in both cities. If Keating and the CDL could convince the News-Call of the rightness of a pro-censorship stand, Lawler and the CDL might do the same here—especially with an appeal to an editor with whom there was a religious empathy.
We have always considered this editor a man of considerable professional integrity and something of a Playboy fan to boot. He had offered us valuable advice when we were having problems with Show Business Illustrated and had complimented us on the overall operation on more than one occasion. How, then, could he possibly be involved in this abortive attempt to suppress the magazine?
It was possible, we realized, that he might not see this action in the same light we did—as an attempt, on the part of one minority group, to project its personal point of view onto the rest of the community. He might sincerely believe that the actions of both Lawler and Melaniphy were justified, for he certainly couldn't know all the unsavory details that had come to our attention regarding CDL, and might not recognize any of the church-state implications in the arrest. For this editor, and for a great many others, our arrest might truly seem to be just a matter of those Jayne Mansfield nudes in the June issue—and nothing else. And without any special insight into either the psychological or legal implications, the idea of "obscenity" might be just as repugnant to him as the idea of censorship is to us.
We arranged a meeting with the editor to learn what we could about his part in the arrest; he was cordial, but he refused to discuss the matter. The answer came soon enough, however, in the pages of his newspaper, Chicago's American. The original reporting of the arrest was about the same in all four Chicago dailies, except that it received a little more space in the American. But two days after the arrest, when the other papers had dropped the story, except for an occasional humorous quip in the columns, the American was just getting warmed up.
Under the headline, "U.S. STUDIES Playboy CASE, MAY PROSECUTE," the paper announced that we faced "possible federal action in connection with the magazine's June issue." The story went on to say that the Chicago postmaster had mailed a copy of the magazine to the Post Office department in Washington for an opinion on whether or not it was "obscene." We were too busy reading the list of dire penalties that would befall the publisher if it was, to speculate long on who might have pulled the local postmaster up to this stunt. But no one had to hold his breath very long waiting for the word from Washington, because—though the newspaper story made it seem all very serious—anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of current obscenity law in America knew that the June issue of Playboy did not even begin to approach the obscene.
The American also quoted the Chicago postmaster as saying, "The next issue is going to get a much closer look before it is sent through the mails. If it appears that there is any obscenity, the magazine will be held from the mails until I can obtain an opinion from Washington." No one bothered to point out in this "news" story that any such action on the part of the local postmaster would be illegal, or to consider what a frightening power would be placed in the hands of an appointed civil servant if he could, indeed, withhold from the mails any periodical he considered objectionable, until he was able to "obtain an opinion from Washington."
What if all the copies of Chicago's American that are delivered by Uncle Sam were unexpectedly "held from the mails," while awaiting word from another government official in Washington? Even if the word that came back was favorable, the newspaper would be, by then, as worthless as—well, as yesterday's newspaper.
The U.S. courts have made it abundantly clear that the Post Office's duty is the efficient delivery of the mails, not the censoring of them. And if a postal official were ever to find truly obscene material being sent through the mail—a rare occurrence—it would then become a matter for the courts, not arbitrary censorship by an administrative assistant. Do Chicago's American and the Chicago postmaster both need to be reminded that our democracy is based upon the protections of due process of law?