The Time Congress Banned the Braille Edition of Playboy

Neilson Barnard, Getty Images
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

It’s not exactly clear how Mack Mattingly first became aware of the fact that taxpayer money was going toward funding the publication of Playboy, but he didn’t like it. The Republican senator from Georgia told the House as much in 1981, specifically condemning the magazine’s salacious jokes and reader-contributed erotica.

It's not unusual for a politician to assert that such material is indecent and contributes to moral turpitude. What was unusual about Mattingly’s specific complaint was that it was directed at a version of Playboy that consisted almost entirely of blank pages. There were no pictures, no cartoons, and no nudity. The edition was produced in Braille, so by default was almost certainly the least objectionable version of the men’s magazine that could possibly be offered.

This didn’t concern Mattingly. To him, the idea of issuing a Braille Playboy was a waste of congressional funds. And for a time, he got the House of Representatives to agree. It was a sensational bit of censorship directed solely at a disadvantaged demographic. But Playboy—and the First Amendment—would not go down without a fight.

 

Since 1931, the Library of Congress has financially supported Braille editions of several popular magazines under their National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Titles like Good Housekeeping, Boy’s Life, National Geographic, and a host of other magazines were and are made available for free to the visually impaired. The Library picks up the fees associated with these limited editions; in 1985, their budget was $33.8 million.

A person reads a page of Braille by running their fingers over it
iStock

Playboy was picked up as a Braille publication beginning in 1970 and eventually became the sixth most popular periodical in the Library’s Braille magazine catalog. Most all of the content from the regular edition was included, except for the cartoons, photographs, and advertisements. Like other Braille titles, its heavy pages were closer to the density of grocery bags and embossed on both sides. It would usually be four times as many pages as an issue for a sighted audience. The only visible ink appeared on the cover, which featured the magazine’s title and familiar bunny logo.

While Playboy obviously appealed to many readers for its lurid content, the magazine also had a rich history of publishing electric journalism and short fiction from a variety of notable writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer. It invested thousands of words in intimate interviews with such important figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and presidential candidates like Jimmy Carter.

Mattingly didn’t appear to have qualms with the government paying for that content to be translated. During a 1981 assembly to hash out a new budget, the senator tried to push through a proposal that would eliminate the magazine’s Party Jokes, Ribald Classics, and Playboy Forum content, arguing that translating those steamier passages was a waste of taxpayer money.

The proposal died out that night, though Congress still found time to vote in favor of giving themselves a raise to $60,662.50 a year. But Mattingly’s broaching of the topic made sure the issue began circulating in congressional hallways. Some saw the inherent silliness of it, while others worried it was flirting with censorship.

Chalmers Wylie, a Republican senator from Ohio, was on Mattingly’s side. He argued that the $103,000 of tax money spent annually on the Braille Playboy was $103,000 too much, and made it clear that he wanted the Library of Congress to scrap it entirely.

Playboy, he said, was nothing more than a way to promote "wanton and illicit sex and so forth"—which was a curious position considering the Braille version of the publication was defanged of any visually pornographic content. But one Wylie aide who spoke to the Chicago Tribune said that Wylie was "opposed to the use of federal money to subsidize the dissemination of material designed to persuade people to become promiscuous."

Playboy, the anonymous aide insisted, perpetuated that notion because the centerfold "changes in every issue and supports the notion of frequent changes of sexual partners, which is definitive of promiscuity."

Wylie was essentially arguing against a feature that wasn’t represented in the Braille edition. But on July 18, 1985, he was able to put the amendment to a vote in the House of Representatives, securing a 216-to-193 roll call win in favor of abolishing funding.

In order to get around the issue of censorship, Wylie didn't call for an outright ban on the magazine. Technically, he was pushing for a $103,000 reduction in the Library’s annual budget, which just so happened to be the exact amount earmarked for the Playboy translation.

Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress at the time, wasn't in favor of the censorship but got the message. He planned to halt production beginning in January of 1986. But Wylie’s motion antagonized two vocal and persistent groups: advocates for the blind and advocates for free speech.

In December 1985, a number of groups—the American Council of the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Association, the American Library Association, and Playboy Enterprises itself—filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to overturn the ban, calling it a violation of the First Amendment.

 

In the complaint, the groups pointed out that Playboy had been in print for 31 years without ever once being found obscene or indecent by a state or federal court. A lawyer for Playboy, Burton Joseph, called the act "morally blind to the mandate of the First Amendment." Somewhat ironically, the move also provided a degree of indirect harm to a group of handicapped workers tasked with printing the Braille edition of Playboy. The Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired in Cincinnati, Ohio lost the $103,000 that Congress paid annually to have the publication issued for the blind.

A Braille edition of 'Playboy' signed by Ray Charles hangs on a wall
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

In an August 1986 ruling, federal district court judge Thomas Hogan declared that Congress had violated the First Amendment and called the withholding of funds a “back door method” of censorship. The Braille edition resumed publication in January 1987. Hogan ordered that the 1986 issues that had been ignored by the Library of Congress should be issued in the form of recordings.

Today, Playboy is still published in Braille, though circulation appears to have dropped from more than 1000 in 1985 to around 500 subscribers.

Undeterred by the ruling, lawmakers continued to patrol the Library of Congress for objectionable content. In 1992, newspaper columnist Roger Simon discovered that several congressman were fond of checking out one book in particular: Sex, a collection of erotic photos featuring Madonna. For educational purposes only, of course.

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

Airbnb
Airbnb

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
Airbnb

If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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