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.

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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.

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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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10 Facts About David Fincher's The Social Network for Its 10th Anniversary

Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Merrick Morton/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network—a movie made when Facebook was less than seven years old and the social media era was relatively new—seemed destined to age poorly. But in the decade since its premiere in October 2010, the film’s depiction of the website and its young founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is more relevant than ever.

Even if you haven’t logged onto Facebook in years, the film offers plenty to love, from David Fincher’s detailed direction to Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script. In honor of its 10-year anniversary, here are 10 facts about The Social Network.

1. Aaron Sorkin started writing the script for The Social Network before the book it's based on was published.

Aaron Sorkin makes a cameo in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network is officially an adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich's 2009 book detailing the founding of Facebook. But according to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, he had already completed 80 percent of the script by the time he read the book. The project came to him in the form of a 14-page book proposal the publisher was shopping around to filmmakers ahead of the title's release. “I said yes on page three," Sorkin told Deadline in 2011. "That’s the fastest I’ve ever said yes to anything."

Instead of waiting for The Accidental Billionaires to be completed and published, Sorkin started working on the script immediately, doing his own first-hand research for much of the process instead of referring to the book.

2. Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

When Transformers star Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of The Social Network’s lead character, Jesse Eisenberg was hired to play Mark Zuckerberg instead. Superbad's Jonah Hill was another star who came close to being cast in the movie, in his case as Napster founder Sean Parker; ultimately, Fincher decided Hill wasn’t right for the role and cast Justin Timberlake instead.

3. The Social Network wasn’t filmed at Harvard.

Harvard University is integral to the legend of Facebook, and setting the first half of The Social Network there was non-negotiable. Filmmakers ran into trouble, however, when attempting to get the school's blessing. The 1970 adaptation of Love Story been shot there, and damaged the campus; the school has reportedly banned all commercial filming on the premises since then. To get around this, The Social Network crew shot the Harvard scenes at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and two prep schools, Phillips Academy Andover and Milton Academy, in Massachusetts.

4. David Fincher did sneak one shot of Harvard into The Social Network.

To convince the audience that they were indeed seeing Harvard, Fincher couldn’t resist sneaking in a shot of the campus’s iconic architecture. When Jesse Eisenberg runs across Harvard Square (which is not on Harvard property) in the beginning film, some nearby arches (which are on Harvard property) appear in the background. Fincher got the lighting he needed for this scene by hiring a street mime to roll a cart with lights on it onto the campus.

“If security were to stop him, the mime wouldn’t talk," The Social Network’s director of photography Jeff Cronenweth told Variety. "By the time they got him out of there, we would have accomplished our shot.”

5. Natalie Portman gave Aaron Sorkin the inside scoop on Harvard.

Natalie Portman attended Harvard from 1999 to 2003, briefly overlapping with fellow star alum Mark Zuckerberg. While enrolled, she dated a member of one of the university’s elite final clubs, which are an important part of The Social Network’s plot. When she learned that Sorkin was writing the screenplay for the movie, she invited the writer over to hear her insider knowledge. Sorkin gave the actress a shout-out in the final script. During one of the deposition scenes, Eisenberg's Harvard-era Zuckerberg is described as “the biggest thing on a campus that included 19 Nobel Laureates, 15 Pulitzer Prize winners, two future Olympians, and a movie star.”

6. Armie Hammer and his body double went to twin boot camp for The Social Network.

Armie Hammer and Josh Pence (as Armie Hammer) in The Social Network (2010).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Armie Hammer is credited as playing both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, but he wasn’t acting alone in his scenes. Josh Pence was cast as a body double and Hammer’s face was digitally pasted over his in post-production. For every scene where both twins appear on screen, Hammer and Pence played separate Winklevi, and then they would swap roles and shoot the scene again. This method allowed the characters to physically interact in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with split screens. Pence’s face may be missing from the movie, but his physical performance was still essential to selling the brothers' dynamic. He and Hammer worked with an acting coach for 10 months to nail down the characters’ complementary body language.

7. The Social Network's tagline was changed at the last minute.

For The Social Network’s main poster, designer Neil Kellerhouse made Jesse Eisenberg’s face the focal point. Over it, he superimposed the memorable tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Originally, the text read “300 million friends,” but it was changed under the assumption that Facebook would hit half a billion users in time for the movie’s October 2010 release.

“We were really hedging our bets," Kellerhouse told IndieWire. "But we scooped them on their own story because right as the film was coming out they got 500 million [members] so we got their publicity as well. It worked out super serendipitously.”

8. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (kind of) makes a cameo in The Social Network.

Sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed the Easter egg David Fincher snuck into The Social Network. In the scene where Mark Zuckerberg is checking someone’s Facebook to cheat on a test, the name “Tyler Durden” can be seen in the top-left corner of the profile. Tyler Durden is the name of the narrator’s alter ego (played by Brad Pitt) in 1999’s Fight Club. Fincher directed both films.

9. The real Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a fan of The Social Network.

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network doesn’t paint Mark Zuckerberg in the most flattering light, and unsurprisingly, the real-life Facebook founder wasn’t happy about it. Following the movie’s release, he called out its “hurtful” inaccuracies, specifically citing the fictional Mara Rooney character that’s used as his motivation for founding the website. But even he admits that some details were spot-on. “It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right," Zuckerberg said at a Stanford event. "Like every single fleece and shirt I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.”

10. A sequel to The Social Network is not out of the question.

The Social Network premiered when Facebook was less than a decade old, and the story of the internet giant has only gotten more dramatic since then. Since settling lawsuits with Eduardo Saverin and the Winkelvoss twins, Facebook has been battling scandals related to privacy issues and its influence on the 2016 election. The last 10 years have provided more than enough material for a sequel to The Social Network, and both Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg have expressed interest in such a project. As of now, there are no confirmed plans for a follow-up.