CINEMA Turned On? Turn It Off

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, . . . or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press AMENDMENT I CINEMA Turned On? Turn It Off Switching channels may be one cu

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Late-night TV used to offer a simple choice: Johnny Carson or old movies. These days, the indiscriminating viewer gets Midnight Blue on Manhattan Cable's Channel J. One night this month, for instance, you could see sadomasochists play whipsie at the Hellfire Club. You could videotape a pornographic cartoon starring a trio of unflaggingly avid barnyard animals. You could catch perhaps a dozen commercials for call-girl "escort services" and for Steve, a gaunt guy who poses in his undies, gives his pertinent measurements and phone number and caters to all comers. You could hear the show's executive producer, Al Goldstein, mouth off on any subject that grazed his mind: Gloria Steinem ("great legs"), a play he'd seen in London ("Skip it. Miss it. Crud"), health violations at local restaurants. On Midnight Blue and other sex shows, for the basic cable subscription price, you could watch all this and more.

Or not. Your call.

That is the argument often made under the First Amendment by civil libertarians, and never more urgently than today. If you don't like it, they say, don't watch it, read it, listen to it or buy it. But also, don't bother people whose tastes differ from yours. In a less toxic age, Thomas Jefferson rhetorically asked, "Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched?" Today Comic George Carlin puts it this way: "On the radio there are two knobs. One turns it off; the other changes the station. This is called freedom of expression. As Ronald Reagan would say, 'Let the free market handle it.' "

On the subject of unpleasant expression, Reagan has said no such thing. Indeed, he has exerted all his political suasion to put the Humpty-Dumpty of traditional morality back together again. His Administration has aligned itself with Fundamentalist vigilantes, and it created a commission that studied and in 1986 condemned pornography. To hard-core Reaganites, Carlin's freedom of expression must translate as "air pollution." After all, the comedian's monologue about the "seven dirty words" provoked a 1978 Supreme Court case after a child heard those words on the radio 14 years ago. Had that boy earned the freedom to get his ears scorched as his father idly twisted the dial? (The court ruled that "patently offensive" language could be regulated on radio and TV.) Do other boys and girls have the freedom to tune in Midnight Blue, or to rent "documentary" snuff films like Faces of Death at their local video stores? Does any jerk with a movie camera have the freedom to exploit and profit from the weaknesses of his performers, his audience and the law?

Since 1980 movie theaters specializing in pornographic fare have been shuttering -- down to about 250 from 700. But porn video is booming. It now accounts for $1 billion in rentals and sales. Indeed, most porn "movies" today are not films but tapes made directly for the bedroom market. From this view, the Reagan counterrevolution in morality looks to be a roaring success: sex is back in the home, where it belongs. The twist is that a lot of it is on TV.

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