Citizens can stop smut

In Atlanta, thanks to concerted action from public officials backed by citizen support, the number of pornographic theaters, peep shows, and bookstores plummeted from 44 four years ago to just 4. Meantime, as a recent report by Monitor correspondent Robbert Press noted, persistence by law-enforcement groups has been similarly successful in closing down pornography establishments in Cincinnati and Jacksonville, Fla.

We think there is a message for many a community troubled by the influx of smut dealers in the conclusion of Fulton County (Atlanta) prosecutor Hinson McAuliffe that "if prosecutors all over the US would go to work on this, [the pornography trade] could be closed down nationwide," Mr. McAuliffe's appropriate stand differs sharply from the approach taken in New York City where officials say they are hindered by public toleration, if not acceptance, of pornography.

In raising the issue of pornography, we are not unmindful of often delicate constitutional questions involving freedom of speech and expression. The US legal system over recent decades has sought to draw careful distinctions between genuine efforts to create novels, plays, and public performances that often offend community tastes and yet cannot be considered pornography, and the more blatant, sordid forms of exploitation and violence which serve no useful artistic or social purpose but are designed for commercial gain.

As for citizen action, we notice that an increasing number of religious-oriented and lay groups are now turning their attention to pornography on the television screen. The Coalition for Better Television, for example, says that starting in March it will undertake a three-month review of prime-time television shows that exploit smut. Advertisers identified with programs stressing particularly suggestive scenes and language, violence, and profanity may find themselves on a list for a one-year boycott of their products. Also, some feminist groups are singling out programs which they feel represent women in a degrading and exploitative way, and PTAs in a number of localities continue to wage a battle against violence on TV.

The commercial networks, not surprisingly, bristle at what they see as censorship and possible boycott of advertisers. But can network chieftains honestly deny that a questionable rawness in no way linked to legitimate entertainment and information has crept into broadcasting in recent years? And what about those cable television firms -- often owned by major US corporations -- that deliberately broadcast explicit films carried right into the home? The firms may argue that the issue is merely one of public choice. But what about their responsibility to society as a whole? Unless the broadcast industry is more willing to police its own excesses than has been the case to date, citizen groups will inevitably step into the vacuum and demand their own, perhaps harsher, reforms.

Pornography, sordidness, and exploitation are blots on society. But, as the three communities noted above have proven, they can be expunged when the public is determined .

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