A federal court judge will declare Thursday whether the U. S. Constitution protects a Los Angeles County firefighter's right to read Playboy in the firehouse, even if county managers fear that such magazines create an unpleasant atmosphere for outnumbered women firefighters.
Following a one-day trial in his courtroom on the subject--including testimony that Playboy has female and blind readers who find the magazine worthwhile for its articles alone--U. S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson indicated that he was leaning toward a ruling in favor of county Fire Department Capt. Steven W. Johnson, 49, who challenged the ban.
The county was unable to show any requirement in federal anti-discrimination law "that supports this . . . policy of yours," Wilson told Les Tolnai, a senior deputy county counsel who defended the ban.
"It doesn't seem to be the type of case that requires this type of First Amendment limitation," the judge said. He added that "evidence is persuasive that there are places in a firehouse that can provide a quiet place to read" Playboy or other such magazines without infringing on the workplace rights of women firefighters.
Johnson, a 27-year-veteran who lives in Corona del Mar, is represented by ACLU and Playboy attorneys in his fight to regain his right to read Playboy at his Lake Los Angeles station, in the far northeastern corner of the Antelope Valley.
Sexually oriented magazines were banned from all work locations--including dormitories, restrooms and lockers--under a sexual harassment policy in July, 1992. Fire Department officials said the policy was needed to prevent a sexually charged environment for the department's 11 women firefighters, who must work with about 2,400 men.
Johnson and his attorneys contended that the ban violated his constitutional right to read what he wants, and that while the department banned Playboy, it permits other controversial material, such as religious advertisements, to be posted at fire stations.
"This case is about thought control," ACLU attorney Paul L. Hoffman said. "The government can't regulate what men think about women . . . based on their desire not to have men think in a certain way."
The county may have had good intentions, but the policy is vague and overly broad, he argued.
"We're not asking to foist Playboy magazine on women who don't want to have it foisted on them," Hoffman said. "All Capt. Johnson is asking for is that when he has his private time, he wants to be able to read Playboy as he has been for the last 30 years."
Tolnai countered, however, that the county had no choice but to enforce the ban to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws. "This case is not about thought control," he said. "This case is about conduct control.
"The First Amendment does not provide the same type of protection in the workplace as it does everywhere else."
Patricia Vaughan, a civilian county employee who helped draft the policy, testified that nude pictures of women at a county firehouse could create an undesirable atmosphere in which women would be viewed as sexual objects.
"There's such a small number of women in the Fire Department it's almost as if they are solo out there," Vaughan said.
Under cross-examination, Vaughan was asked whether the ban would also apply to other magazines in which pictures of nude or skimpily dressed women had appeared, and copies of Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated were shown to her as examples. She responded that it would.
County Firefighter Janet Babcock, appearing for the county, testified that before the ban, nude magazines did indeed create such an atmosphere. "You had to put on a thick skin a lot of the time, go with the flow," Babcock said. "Sometimes I needed to be more on guard."
Babcock testified that after the ban went into effect, her co-workers blamed her for depriving them of such magazines. She also said she did not tell any of her co-workers that she was testifying Tuesday because she did not want to have to defend her actions.
Babcock and another female firefighter submitted declarations to the court stating their opposition to lifting the ban. However, two other women firefighters filed declarations with the court contending that they had no objections to the presence of such magazines in fire stations.
Both sides also presented social psychologists as expert witnesses on the effect of magazines containing pictures of nude women on men and women in the workplace.
Dr. Daniel G. Linz testified on behalf of the county that he was particularly concerned by this month's issue of Playboy, which featured pictures of nude women firefighters in other departments titled "Some Like It Hot."
Lisa J. Natale, a marketing director for Playboy, testified that a Braille edition is available for the blind and submitted a declaration that about 325,000 women subscribe to Playboy, forming about 12% of the magazine's 2.7 million subscribers.
Johnson's wife Cathy, who attended her husband's trial, said in an interview that she's with them.
"I like to read it too," she said. "I know a lot of women who read it."