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Court Voids Law on Pornography : Kills Ordinance Defining Such Material as Sex Bias

February 25, 1986|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, acting swiftly to disapprove a novel approach to fighting pornography, struck down Monday a municipal ordinance that defined such material as sex discrimination and allowed women assault victims to bring lawsuits against authors, publishers and distributors.

In a 6-3 ruling, the justices, without hearing oral argument or issuing a written opinion, summarily affirmed a federal appeals court decision that invalidated an Indianapolis anti-pornography law as a violation of free speech.

Full Review Rejected

Only Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor had wanted to hear arguments in the case, one justice short of the four needed to grant full review.

The case had been watched closely by officials in dozens of American communities where legislation similar to the Indianapolis measure had been considered but not enacted because of concern about its constitutionality. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council have rejected similar proposals. The high court's summary action against the Indianapolis ordinance is likely to discourage further attempts to enact such laws.

Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III, supported by a coalition of feminist and religious groups, argued in the appeal (Hudnut vs. American Booksellers, 85-1090) that the pornography industry generated sex-related abuse, victimizing women and children. The ordinance, he said, was "an innovative and promising way" of combatting the problem.

Civil libertarians and booksellers, citing its sweeping and sometimes vague provisions, called the law misguided and an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

'Pain or Humiliation'

The ordinance, enacted by the City Council in 1984, defined pornography as "the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women" in pictures or words--including, among other things, material in which women are "presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation."

The legislation allowed civil complaints to be filed to block the sale of material found to be pornographic, and it permitted female assault victims to bring monetary damage suits against authors, publishers, distributors and exhibitors on the grounds that their injuries resulted from pornographic books or movies read or seen by their assailants.

A federal district judge barred enforcement of the ordinance and, last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Judge Cites 'Iliad'

Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, noting that both James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Homer's "Iliad" had depicted women as "submissive objects for conquest and domination," said that the law improperly discriminated on the basis of the content of speech.

Easterbrook pointed out that the ordinance would protect material that treated women in the approved way, no matter how sexually explicit it was--but would make unlawful material treating women in the disapproved way, "no matter how significant the literary, artistic or political qualities of the work."

"The state may not ordain preferred viewpoints in this way," the judge wrote. "The Constitution forbids the state to declare one perspective right and silence opponents."

'No Pass, No Play' Law

In other action, the court:

--Refused to hear a constitutional challenge to the controversial Texas "no pass, no play" law, which suspends public high school students who fail a course from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities (Stamos vs. Spring Branch District, 85-1232).

--Agreed to decide next term how much evidence illegal aliens must submit to obtain political asylum because of fear of persecution in their homelands. More than 11,000 asylum applications were filed last year, and the Reagan Administration asked the justices to overturn a decision by a federal appeals court in San Francisco holding that applicants must show only a "well-founded fear of persecution," rather than meet the more difficult standard of "clear probability" of persecution (INS vs. Cardoza-Fonseca, 85-782).

--Cleared the way for the extradition to Israel of Nazi war crimes suspect John Demjanjuk, alleged to be "Ivan the Terrible," an executioner at a camp where hundreds of thousands of Jews were put to death. Subsequently Monday, Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead signed a surrender warrant that clears the way for his extradition (Demjanjuk vs. Petrovsky, 85-1068).

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