Fire department pours cold water on sizzling centrefolds

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The Independent Online
IT IS not a problem that the founding fathers of the United States anticipated when they wielded their quills two centuries ago. But when Steven Johnson, a fireman, discovered that he was no longer allowed to thumb through Playboy at work, he was in no doubt that his rights had been violated.

Mr Johnson, 49, told a federal judge in Los Angeles this week that he has been an avid reader of the publication for 30 years. Not so much for its naked women, mark you, as for its high-brow articles and advice columns, which made good reading while he waited at the station for the alarms to go off.

Two years ago, however, his pleasures came to a halt when the magazine was banned by his employers, the Los Angeles County Fire Department (along with Penthouse and Playgirl) on the grounds that its contents infringed the rights of women employees. There are 11 female fire-fighters in the 2,400-strong brigade. None works at Mr Johnson's station, a remote establishment in the middle of the Mojave desert.

The captain decided to sue the department for abusing his rights to free speech under the First Amendment. During a one-day hearing, his lawyers produced a Playboy executive who testified that the magazine was read by the blind (in Braille), and had some 325,000 female readers. The American Civil Liberties Union accused the authorities of trying to impose 'thought control'.

Mr Johnson says he also has the support of a member of an inter-departmental prayer group. 'This guy said, 'Captain, I support you, because if they can take your Playboy today, they'll take my Bible tomorrow,' ' he told reporters. The judge is expected to rule today on this landmark case. He seems inclined to agree with Mr Johnson, whose employers have admitted that their ban would also embrace such steamy fare as Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. But the cause has not been helped by this month's Playboy. Its special feature? Pictures of naked women firefighters, under the title 'Some Like It Hot'.