ENC2106 Advanced Composition and Communication


                             A First Amendment Junkie

                              SUSAN JACOBY 

Department of English

Susan Jacoby (b. 1946), a journalist since the age of seventeen, is

well known for her feminist writings. “A First Amendment

Junkie” (our title) appeared in a “Hers” column in the New York

Times in 1978.


It is no news that many women are defecting from the ranks of civil libertarians on the issue of obscenity. The conviction of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine—before his metamorphosis into a born-again Christian—was greeted with unabashed feminist approval. Harry Reems, the unknown actor who was convicted by a Memphis jury for conspiring to distribute the movie Deep Throat, has carried on his legal

battles with almost no support from women who ordinarily regard themselves as supporters of the First Amendment. Feminist writers and scholars have even discussed the possibility of making common cause against pornography with adversaries of the women’s movement—in­cluding opponents of the equal rights amendment and “right-to-life” forces.

All of this is deeply disturbing to a woman writer who believes, as I always have and still do, in an absolute interpretation of the First Amendment. Nothing in Larry Flynt’s garbage convinces me that the late Justice Hugo L. Black was wrong in his opinion that “the Federal Government is without any power whatsoever under the Constitution to put any type of burden on free speech and expression of ideas of any kind (as distinguished from conduct).” Many women I like and respect tell me I am wrong; I cannot remember having become involved in so many heated discussions of a public issue since the end of the Vietnam War. A feminist writer described my views as those of a “First Amendment junkie.”

Many feminist arguments for controls on pornography carry the im­plicit conviction that porn books, magazines, and movies pose a greater threat to women than similarly repulsive exercises of free speech pose to other offended groups. This conviction has, of course, been shared by everyone—regardless of race, creed, or sex—who has ever argued in favor of abridging the First Amendment. It is the argument used by some Jews who have withdrawn their support from the American Civil Liberties Union because it has defended the right of American Nazis to march through a community inhabited by survivors of Hitler’s concen­tration camps.

If feminists want to argue that the protection of the Constitution should not be extended to any particularly odious or threatening form of speech, they have a reasonable argument (although I don’t agree with it). But it is ridiculous to suggest that the porn shops on 42nd Street are more disgusting to women than a march of neo-Nazis is to survivors of the extermination camps.

The arguments over pornography also blur the vital distinction be­tween expression of ideas and conduct. When I say I believe unre­servedly in the First Amendment, someone always comes back at me with the issue of “kiddie porn.” But kiddie porn is not a First Amendment issue. It is an issue of the abuse of power—the power adults have over children—and not of obscenity. Parents and promoters have no more right to use their children to make porn movies than they do to send them to work in coal mines. The responsible adults should be prosecuted, just as adults who use children for back-breaking farm labor diould be prosecuted.

Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, has described pornography as “the undiluted essence of antifemale propa­ganda.” I think this is a fair description of some types of pornography, especially of the brutish subspecies that equates sex with death and por­hayS women primarily as objects of violence.

The equation of sex and violence, personified by some glossy rock record album covers as well as by Hustler, has fed the illusion that cen­sorship of pornography can be conducted on a more rational basis than other types of censorship. Are all pictures of naked women obscene? Clearly not, says a friend. A Renoir nude is art, she says, and Hustler is trash. “Any reasonable person” knows that.

But what about something between art and trash—something, say, along the lines of Playboy or Penthouse magazines? I asked five women for their reactions to one picture in Penthouse and got responses that ranged from “lovely” and “sensuous” to “revolting” and “demeaning.” Feminists, like everyone else, seldom have rational reasons for their preferences in erotica. Like members of juries, they tend to disagree when confronted with something that falls short of 100 percent vul­garity.

In any case, feminists will not be the arbiters of good taste if it becomes easier to harass, prosecute, and convict people on obscenity charges. Most of the people who want to censor girlie magazines are equally opposed to open discussion of issues that are of vital concern to women: rape, abortion, menstruation, contraception, lesbianism— in fact, the entire range of sexual experience from a women’s viewpoint.

Feminist writers and editors and filmmakers have limited financial 10 resources: Confronted by a determined prosecutor, Hugh Hefner1 will fare better than Susan Brownmiller. Would the Memphis jurors who convicted Harry Reems for his role in Deep Throat be inclined to take a more positive view of paintings of the female genitalia done by sensitive feminist artists? Ms. magazine has printed color reproductions of some of those art works; Ms. is already banned from a number of high school libraries because someone considers it threatening and/or obscene.

Feminists who want to censor what they regard as harmful pornogra­phy have essentially the same motivation as other would-be censors: They want to use the power of the state to accomplish what they have been un­able to achieve in the marketplace of ideas and images. The impulse to censor places no faith in the possibilities of democratic persuasion.

It isn’t easy to persuade certain men that they have better uses for $1.95 each month than to spend it on a copy of Hustler? Well, then, give the men no choice in the matter.

I believe there is also a connection between the impulse toward censorship on the part of people who used to consider themselves civil lib­ertarians and a more general desire to shift responsibility from individu­als to institutions. When I saw the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I was stunned by its series of visual images equating sex and violence, coupled with what seems to me the mindless message (a distortion of the fine Judith Rossner novel) that casual sex equals death. When I came out of the movie, I was even more shocked to see parents standing in line with children between the ages of ten and fourteen.

I simply don’t know why a parent would take a child to see such a movie, any more than I understand why people feel they can’t turn off a television set their child is watching. Whenever I say that, my friends tell me I don’t know how it is because I don’t have children. True, but I do have parents. When I was a child, they did turn off the TV. They didn’t expect the Federal Communications Commission to do their job for them.

I am a First Amendment junkie. You can’t OD on the First Amendment, because free speech is its own best antidote.


Suppose we want to make a rough summary, more or less para­graph by paragraph, of Jacoby’s essay. Such a summary might look something like this (the numbers refer to Jacoby’s paragraphs):


1.  Although feminists usually support the First Amendment, when it comes to pornography, many feminists take pretty much the position of those who oppose ERA and abortion and other causes of the women’s movement.

2.  Larry Flynt produces garbage, but I think his conviction represents an unconstitutional Limitation of freedom of speech.

3,  4. Feminists who want to control (censor) pornography argue that it poses a greater threat to women than similar repulsive speech poses to other groups. If feminists want to say that all offensive speech should be restricted, they can make a case, but it is absurd to say that pornography is a “greater threat” to women than a march of neo-Nazis is to survivors of concentration camps.

5.  Trust in the First Amendment is not refuted by kiddie porn; kiddie porn is not a First Amendment issue but an issue of chiLd abuse.

6, 7, 8. Some feminists think censorship of pornography can be more “rational” than other kinds of censorship, but a picture of a nude woman strikes some women as base and others as “lovely.” There is no unanimity.

9, 10. If feminists censor girlie magazines, they will find that they are unwittingly helping opponents of the women’s movement to censor discussions of rape, abortion, and so on. Some of the art in the feminist magazine Ms. would doubtless be censored.

11, 12. Like other would-be censors, feminists want to use the power of the state to achieve what they have not achieved in “the marketplace of ideas.” They display a lack of faith in “democratic persuasion.”

13, 14. This attempt at censorship reveals a desire to “shift responsi­bility from individuals to institutions.” The responsibility—for in­stance, to keep young people from equating sex with violence—is properly the parents’.

15. We can’t have too much of the First Amendment.


Jacoby’s thesis, or major claim, or chief proposition—that any form of censorship of pornography is wrong is clear enough, even as early as the end of her first paragraph, but it gets its life or its force from the rea­sons offered throughout the essay. If we want to reduce our summary even further, we might say that Jacoby supports her thesis by arguing several subsidiary points. We will merely assert them briefly, but Jacoby argues them—that is, she gives reasons:

a. Pornography can scarcely be thought of as more offensive than Nazism.

b. Women disagree about which pictures are pornographic.

c. Feminists who want to censor pornography will find that they help antifeminists to censor discussions of issues advocated by the women’s movement:

d. Feminist who favor censorship are in effect turning to the govern­ment to achieve what they haven’t achieved in the free marketplace.  

e. One sees this abdication of responsibility in the fact that parents

allow their children to watch unsuitable movies and television pro­grams.


If we want to present a brief summary in the form of one coherent paragraph—perhaps as part of our own essay to show the view we are arguing in behalf of or against—we might write something like this summary. (The summary would, of course, be prefaced by a lead-in along these lines: “Susan Jacoby, writing in the New York Times, offers a forceful argument against censorship of pornography. Jacoby’s view, briefly, is   

When it comes to censorship of pornography, some feminists take a position shared by opponents of the feminist movement. They argue that pornography poses a greater threat to women than other forms of offensive speech offer to other groups, but this interpretation is sim­ply a mistake. Pointing to kiddie porn is also a mistake, for kiddie porn is an issue involving not the First Amendment but child abuse. Feminists who support censorship of pornography wilt inadvertently aid those who wish to censor discussions of abortion and rape or cen­sor art that is published in magazines such as Ms. The solution is not for individuals to turn to institutions (that is, for the government to limit the First Amendment) but for individuals to accept the responsi­bility for teaching young people not to equate sex with violence.

Whether we agree or disagree with Jacoby’s thesis, we must admit that the reasons she sets forth to support it are worth thinking about. Only a reader who closely follows the reasoning with which Jacoby but­tresses her thesis is in a position to accept or reject it.


Topics for Critical Thinking and Writing


1.   What does Jacoby mean when she says she is a “First Amendment junkie”?


2.    The essay is primarily an argument against the desire of some feminists to try to censor pornography of the sort that appeals to some heterosex­ual adult males, but the next-to-last paragraph is about television and children. Is the paragraph connected to Jacoby’s overall argument? If so, how?


3.  Evaluate the final paragraph as a final paragraph. (Effective final para­graphs are not, of course, all of one sort. Some, for example, round off the essay by echoing something from the opening; others suggest that the reader, having now seen the problem, should think further about it or even act on it. But a good final paragraph, whatever else it does, should make the reader feel that the essay has come to an end, not just broken off.)


4.  This essay originally appeared in the New York Times. If you are unfa­miliar with this newspaper, consult an issue or two in your library. Next, in a paragraph, try to characterize the readers of the paper—that is, Jacoby’s audience.


5.  Jacoby claims in paragraph 2 that she “believes ... in an absolute inter­pretation of the First Amendment.” What does such an interpretation involve? Would it permit shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater even though the shouter knows there is no fire? Would it permit shouting racist insults at blacks or immigrant Vietnamese? Spreading untruths about someone’s past? If the “absolutist” interpretation of the First Amendment does permit these statements, does that argument show that nothing is morally wrong with uttering them? (Does the First Amendment, as actually interpreted by the Supreme Court today, per­mit any or all of these claims? Consult your reference librarian for help in answering this question.)


6.  Jacoby implies that permitting prosecution of persons on obscenity charges will lead eventually to censorship of “open discussion” of im­portant issues such as “rape, abortion, menstruation, contraception, les­bianism” (para. 9). Do you find her fears convincing? Does she give any evidence to support her claim?