Cambridge, Mass. — Voters in this small city near Boston are being asked to join a so-far unsuccessful grass-roots war against pornography. On the ballot for consideration by residents of Cambridge, which is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a proposal that supporters consider a ``model'' antipornography ordinance.
The proposal is different from most such laws in its classification of pornography as a violation of human rights rather than a crime. If the ordinance is approved, citizens will have a legal basis for bringing civil suits against alleged distributors or producers of pornography.
This vote will not be the opening battle in the current antipornography war, however. An almost identical ordinance was first adopted in Minneapolis, but was vetoed by the mayor. It has also been rejected in Los Angeles and Suffolk County, on Long Island, N.Y.
Virtually the same measure was adopted in December 1983 by the City Council of Indianapolis, Ind., but was found unconstitutional by a United States District Court judge in August 1984. That ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court and is being appealed to the US Supreme Court.
Undaunted, backers of the measure are pushing their case here and elsewhere across the US. The authors of the model ordinance -- feminist lecturer and writer Andrea Dworkin of New York City and law Prof. Catherine A. MacKinnon of the University of Califonia at Los Angeles -- say a ``yes'' vote in Cambridge could encourage efforts to enact similar measures in several other communities.
Meanwhile, pornography is the subject of two national inquiries. An 11-member commission on pornography was appointed last May by US Attorney General Edwin Meese III. Its report is expected next June.
A study to determine the relationship, if any, between pornographic publications and juvenile violence was commissioned by the Justice Department in March 1984. Its report is due within a month.
The antipornography drive has produced some unlikely allies and adversaries. The American Civil Liberties Union, a strong advocate of women's rights, has led the assault on the Dworkin-MacKinnon proposal, which ACLU lawyers believe violates the freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and the ``due process'' guarantee of the Fifth Amendment.
In Cambridge and elsewhere, women who are advocates of feminist causes such as the Equal Rights Amendment are at odds on the wisdom of the law.
Authors of the measure say it ``defines pornography as the sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words'' and details the ``elements'' which present women as ``dehumanized . . . sexual objects.'' Ms. Dworkin believes such an explicit description of the kinds of portrayals which would be considered unlawful assures that artisitic, educational, and literary materials would not be subject to action under the law.
In striking down the Indianapolis version of the antipornography law in 1984, US District Judge Sarah Evans Barker disagreed.
Ruling that the ordinance violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, Judge Barker asked: ``How then are the buyers or sellers of literature to know if their interpretations of the probibitions in the ordinance comport with that of the censorship committtee or the individuals who seek to privately enforce the ordinance?''
She also said that such a law, if allowed to stand, might open the way for future prohibitions against other forms of behavior which a majority of citizens might consider objectionable.