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.

A New Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bobblehead Is Available for Pre-Order

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

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The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a devout champion for feminism and civil rights, and her influence stretched from the halls of the Supreme Court to the forefront of popular culture, where she affectionately became known as the Notorious RBG. Though there are plenty of public tributes planned for Ginsburg in the wake of her passing, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has a new RBG bobblehead ($25) available for pre-order so you can honor her in your own home.

There are two versions of the bobblehead available, one of Ginsburg smiling and another with a more serious expression. Not only do the bobbleheads feature her in her Supreme Court black robe, but eagle-eyed fans will see she is wearing one for her iconic coded collars and her classic earrings.

RBG is far from the only American icon bobblehead that the Hall of Fame store has produced in such minute detail. They also have bobbleheads of Abraham Lincoln ($30), Theodore Roosevelt ($30), Alexander Hamilton ($30), and dozens of others.

For more information on the RBG bobblehead, head here. Shipments will hopefully be sent out by December 2020 while supplies last.

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12 Spirited Facts About How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Each year, millions of Americans welcome the holiday season by tuning into their favorite TV specials. For most people, this includes at least one viewing of the 1966 animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Adapted from Dr. Seuss’s equally famous children’s book by legendary animator Chuck Jones, How the Grinch Stole Christmas first aired more than 50 years ago, on December 18, 1966. Here are 12 facts about the TV special that will surely make your heart grow three sizes this holiday season.

1. Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel And Chuck Jones previously worked together on Army training videos.

During World War II, Geisel joined the United States Army Air Forces and served as commander of the Animation Department for the First Motion Picture Unit, a unit tasked with creating various training and pro-war propaganda films. It was here that Geisel soon found himself working closely with Chuck Jones on an instructional cartoon called Private Snafu. Originally classified as for-military-personnel-only, Private Snafu featured a bumbling protagonist who helped illustrate the dos and don’ts of Army safety and security protocols.

2. It was because of their previous working relationship that Ted Geisel agreed to hand over the rights to The Grinch to Chuck Jones.

After several unpleasant encounters in relation to his previous film work—including the removal of his name from credits and instances of pirated redistribution—Geisel became notoriously “anti-Hollywood.” Because of this, he was reluctant to sell the rights to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. However, when Jones personally approached him about making an adaptation, Geisel relented, knowing he could trust Jones and his vision.

3. Even with Ted Geisel’s approval, the special almost didn’t happen.

By Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whereas today’s studios and production companies provide funding for projects of interest, television specials of the past, like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, had to rely on company sponsorship in order to get made. While A Charlie Brown Christmas found its financier in the form of Coca-Cola, How the Grinch Stole Christmas struggled to find a benefactor. With storyboards in hand, Jones pitched the story to more than two dozen potential sponsors—breakfast foods, candy companies, and the like—all without any luck. Down to the wire, Jones finally found his sponsor in an unlikely source: the Foundation for Commercial Banks. “I thought that was very odd, because one of the great lines in there is that the Grinch says, ‘Perhaps Christmas doesn’t come from a store,’” Jones said of the surprise endorsement. “I never thought of a banker endorsing that kind of a line. But they overlooked it, so we went ahead and made the picture.”

4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas had a massive budget.

Coming in at over $300,000, or $2.2 million in today’s dollars, the special’s budget was unheard of at the time for a 26-minute cartoon adaptation. For comparison’s sake, A Charlie Brown Christmas’s budget was reported as $96,000, or roughly $722,000 today (and this was after production had gone $20,000 over the original budget).

5. Ted Geisel wrote the song lyrics for the special.

No one had a way with words quite like Dr. Seuss, so Jones felt that Geisel should provide the lyrics to the songs featured in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

6. Fans requested translations of the “Fahoo Foraze” song.

True to his persona’s tongue-twisting trickery, Geisel mimicked sounds of classical Latin in his nonsensical lyrics. After the special aired, viewers wrote to the network requesting translations of the song as they were convinced that the lyrics were, in fact, real Latin phrases.

7. Thurl Ravenscroft didn’t receive credit for his singing of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

The famous voice actor and singer, best known for providing the voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, wasn’t recognized for his work in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Because of this, most viewers wrongly assumed that the narrator of the special, Boris Karloff, also sang the piece in question. Upset by this oversight, Geisel personally apologized to Ravenscroft and vowed to make amends. Geisel went on to pen a letter, urging all the major columnists that he knew to help him rectify the mistake by issuing a notice of correction in their publications.

8. Chuck Jones had to find ways to fill out the 26-minute time slot.

Because reading the book out loud only takes about 12 minutes, Jones was faced with the challenge of extending the story. For this, he turned to Max the dog. “That whole center section where Max is tied up to the sleigh, and goes down through the mountainside, and has all those problems getting down there, was good comic business as it turns out,” Jones explained in TNT’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas special, which is a special feature on the movie’s DVD. “But it was all added; it was not part of the book.” Jones would go on to name Max as his favorite character from the special, as he felt that he directly represented the audience.

9. The Grinch’s green coloring was inspired by a rental car.

Warner Home Video

In the original book, the Grinch is illustrated as black and white, with hints of pink and red. Rumor has it that Jones was inspired to give the Grinch his iconic coloring after he rented a car that was painted an ugly shade of green.

10. Ted Geisel thought the Grinch looked like Chuck Jones.

When Geisel first saw Jones’s drawings of the Grinch, he exclaimed, “That doesn’t look like the Grinch, that looks like you!” Jones’s response, according to TNT’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas Special: “Well, it happens.”

11. At one point, the special received a “censored” edit.

Over the years, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has been edited in order to shorten its running time (in order to allow for more commercials). However, one edit—which ran for several years—censored the line “You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch” from the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Additionally, the shot in which the Grinch smiles creepily just before approaching the bed filled with young Whos was deemed inappropriate for certain networks and was removed.

12. The special’s success led to both a prequel and a crossover special.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Given the popularity of the Christmas special, two more Grinch tales were produced: Halloween is Grinch Night and The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat. Airing on October 29, 1977, Halloween is Grinch Night tells the story of the Grinch making his way down to Whoville to scare all the Whos on Halloween. In The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat, which aired on May 20, 1982, the Grinch finds himself wanting to renew his mean spirit by picking on the Cat in the Hat. Unlike the original, neither special was deemed a classic. But this is not to say they weren’t well-received; in fact, both went on to win Emmy Awards.