Unlike most of Playboy’s readers in the 1970s, one select group was definitely reading it for the articles: the magazine’s blind subscribers. And though the photo content was lost in translation, the edition they received had curves in all the right places — because it was written in Braille.
Before the blind and visually impaired had screen readers to dictate the contents of their smartphones, many would run their hands over the bumpy patterns of a Braille text to read the latest news or profile on a cultural icon. Playboy, which had the budget and provocative editorial instincts to showcase big names in journalism, was a major source of contemporary information in the 1970s. The original version featured articles on everything from civil rights campaigns to presidential candidates — alongside centerfolds, of course — when the Library of Congress began funding production of a Braille edition.
Yet more than a decade into its production and enjoyment, one Republican congressman launched a crusade against the Braille Playboy that would eventually be heard in federal court. The resulting discussion informed our ideas, on a national level, about pornography, accessibility and the right for all to be well read.
Inthe 1960s and 70s, the pages of Playboy were chock full of beautiful women and thousands upon thousands of beautiful words. While the December 1968 issue featured actress Cynthia Mayer posed like a Christmas tree with just a hint of breast exposed under a jacket of holiday lights, the cover also boasts contributions from famed authors including Truman Capote and Arthur Miller, as well an interview with Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver. Like Esquire, Rolling Stone or The New Yorker, the less titillating contents of Playboy were required reading at the time.
“Playboy was lucky enough to be around when the confluence of New Journalism…and a literate, adventurous readership ready for in-depth articles rich with the writer’s voice allowed editors and publishers to assume the intelligence of their readers and take all sorts of chances,” Charles Taylor wrote on Salon.
The same era brought about far greater awareness of the disability community and beginning in 1970, production of Braille Playboy was funded by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (which has been publishing Braille content since 1931). The magazine, which featured no advertisements or descriptions of images, is equally non-descript with a white background, bold black letters for the masthead, and a simple black outline of the iconic bunny logo.
The magazine would join 35 other popular publications, including Good Housekeeping and National Geographic. Although a reader of Braille Playboymight not see the buxom young women who graced the mag’s covers, they could pick up a copy at the library or request that an issue be sent to their home.
Advocates have credited Playboy with being the library service’s sixth most popular publication, but its blind readers would soon need to mount a battle against a growing tide of conservatism in the 1980s. The debate surrounding the public’s ideas about pornography and government responsibility for accessible materials would last for years.
In 1981, Republican Sen. Mack Mattingly of Georgia spearheaded a proposal that would prohibit the Library of Congress from funding Braille production of “Party Jokes,” “Ribald Classics,” and “Playboy Forum” sections of Playboy. Mattingly ultimately backed down in order to pass an annual budget (which included a pay raise for lawmakers), but Braille Playboy caused heated debate among Republicans and Democrats alike.
On the side of defunding production of Braille Playboy was Ohio Republican Rep. Charlmers Wylie, who wrote multiple letters protesting the publication following constituent complaints. Wylie “thought it was inappropriate and not at all satisfactory for blind people to be getting the information that’s in Playboy,” said Oral O. Miller, then-executive director of American Council of the Blind.
Rather than defund the entire program, Wiley moved to reduce the Library’s budget by just enough to cease production of Braille Playboy. At the time, Congress was spending $103,000 a year to produce 1,000 12-month subscriptions of that magazine. In 1985, the House, led by Wylie, voted 216 to 193 in favor of the reduced appropriation to stop production of Playboy in Braille.
“I just think that when we have a budget deficit of $200 billion, this is an unwise use of taxpayers’ money,” Wylie said after the vote, according to The Washington Post. “I think Playboy assails traditional moral values and peddles licit as well as illicit sex. I believe that promoting the reading of Playboy in this way does lead to undesirable activities.”
Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin called the vote censorship and Playboy’sEditorial Director, Arthur Kretchmer, asserted the magazine’s “literary merit.” Advocates for the blind were up in arms, and they fought back.
Following the 1985 vote, a number of organizations banded together to sue the Library of Congress and its director at the time. Oral Miller, blind since childhood, was the chief plaintiff in the case; other plaintiffs included along the American Council of the Blind, 41 House members, the Blinded Veterans Association, the American Library Association, and Playboy Enterprises Inc.
“The argument was that the National Library Service was basically practicing a form of censorship against a number of blind citizens and readers around the country,” Miller said.
Blind readers responded in droves to the defunding of the magazine. Miller provided Timeline with letters to the American Council of the Blind and transcripts of phone calls from Braille Playboy readers.
“It had been a point of pride in the blind community that Playboy existed in Braille. It helped legitimize blind people as ‘normal,’” one reader said in July 1985. “Is this a first step toward censoring other materials? The blind population has the right to have access to materials representative of the culture.”
A 33-year-old totally blind woman from Ohio angrily said, “Since Playboy has always been a defender of the First Amendment, I am not sitting idly waiting for my monthly copy of Playboy. What gives you the moral authority to govern my choice of reading material when it’s obviously illegal to make that choice for my sighted counterparts?”
On Aug. 28, 1986, U.S. District Court judge Thomas F. Hogan overturned the Braille ban on the grounds that it constituted a First Amendment violation. The New York Times declared the ruling a win for the blind and wrote that the Congressional decision to withhold funds was a “back door method of censorship.”
“[Wiley’s supporters] didn’t say they were opposed to sexual content; it was very specific to that magazine,” said James LaRue, director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It was discriminatory. It was over-broad and it was too specific at the same time.”
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has continued to publish Playboy since 1986 without any injunctions. The 1986 ruling was likely a signal to Congress to leave such issues alone, LaRue estimated.
“To my knowledge there hasn’t been an attempt to censor ever since… it speaks to the unique needs of this population,” he said. “Blind and visually impaired people are very feisty. They’re very well organized, passionate, and intelligent.”
The National Library Service was quoted saying that the Braille version of the magazine had about 500 regular readers in 2000, the most recent figures available. But the special edition might be in peril again — but from a different angle. Many young blind people are increasingly reliant on their smartphonesfor reading, and as of 2012 only one in 10 blind people can read Braille.
The mere existence of Braille Playboy and the 1980s legal battle brought the dialogue surrounding accessibility to a much wider audience, noted Museum of Sex Director of Exhibitions Mark Snyder. The New York museum has several copies of the magazine in its archives and on display.
“There are things that different communities might want access to, and that doesn’t come up all the time in people’s everyday lives unless they’re close to someone in a differently-abled community,” Snyder said. “I think it opens a door to that conversation.”