When someone mentions Playboy magazine, what usually pops to mind is Hugh Heffner in a bathrobe, numerous “bunnies”, and a nude centerfold. Apart from this, since its first publication in 1953, Playboy’s editors have always nurtured a lifestyle magazine image, with opinion pieces, political analysis articles, and interviews with a variety of influential figures ― from movie stars to civil activists.
After its significant boom in the 1960s, which came along with the Sexual Revolution, Playboy enhanced its cultural role in American society by promoting sexual liberty, as well as opposing the conservative reaction that considered pornography a great taboo.
While Playboy’s journey from a small-time lad-mag to world-renowned brand included numerous legal ups and downs. Perhaps one of the most interesting of these is related to a very special edition of the magazine ― intended for blind people.
Yes, it is true, there was actually a series of publications of Playboy written in braille, printed on brown paper with a simple “Bunny” logo, and most importantly without any pictures whatsoever.
The magazine was printed in association with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and therefore featured no adds as well, as it was financed from the national budget.
By the time the first Playboy for the blind came out, Hugh Hefner’s media outlet had already established itself as one of the power-houses of New Journalism, along with Esquire and Rolling Stone, by publishing subjective, in-depth opinion pieces and interviews authored by the likes of Truman Capote and Alex Haley.
They also featured a number of short stories of some of the most exciting authors of the time. Writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, and Doris Lessing, just to name a few, all contributed to Playboy, raising the bar significantly in comparison to other magazines of the same niche. In one particularly memorable issue, country star Dolly Parton posed (not nude) with a creepy giant bunny. Check out the video below:
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that many read it not just for the nudes, but for intellectual and literary stimulation as well. Apart from Playboy, there were 35 other publications adapted specially for the blind, although this was the only erotic magazine on the shelves. Nationwide users could purchase a yearly subscription and have it delivered to their home address, or even rent a copy from their local library.
By the 1980s, Playboy had become the sixth most popular magazine read by blind people in America. This, however, attracted the attention of representatives in the Congress who considered it was wrong to use public funds in financing what was primarily a pornographic magazine.
As early as 1981, Republican senator Mack Mattingly of Georgia proposed that the editions exclude columns like “Party Jokes,” “Ribald Classics,” and “Playboy Forum,” finding them inappropriate for blind readers.
This was the first attempt to censor Playboy for blind readers, which ultimately failed, but stirred up public opinion on pornography in the wake of a rising tide of New Conservatism.
The second hit came in 1985, after another vocal opponent, Ohio Republican representative Charlmers Wylie, wrote several letters calling for the cutting of funds, thus disabling the publication.
At the time, some $103,000 was used annually to produce 1,000 12-month subscriptions to the braille edition of Playboy. The proposition to cut the funds was put to a vote at the House of Congress and resulted in 216 to 193 in favor of canceling the publication.
However, as soon as word got out, many members of the community of blind people decided to collectively sue the government for denying them the right to purchase content which is sold legally to people who are not faced with such handicap.
They were joined by a number of other organizations, as well as members of the public. Then-Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, openly protested calling the vote a case of censorship.
The list of plaintiffs included Oral Miller who had been blind since childhood, as well as the American Council of the Blind, 41 Congress members, the Blinded Veterans Association, the American Library Association, and Playboy Enterprises Inc.
Regarding the jeopardized existence of Playboy in Braille, one concerned reader wrote a letter to the American Council of the Blind in July 1985, in which he stated:
“It had been a point of pride in the blind community that Playboy existed in braille. It helped legitimize blind people as ‘normal’. Is this a first step toward censoring other materials? The blind population has the right to have access to materials representative of the culture.”
Finally, on August 28th, 1986, the vote was overturned on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. The Braille edition of Playboy has been in print without interruption since then.
The case itself demonstrated how censorship could be achieved if not confronted, and also raised awareness about the importance of inclusion of all people, regardless of their impairment.