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FIREHOUSE PLAYBOY BAN STRUCK DOWN

SHARE FIREHOUSE PLAYBOY BAN STRUCK DOWN

Deciding a case that pitted free speech protections against sexual harassment safeguards, a federal judge has struck down a Los Angeles County policy that bans Playboy magazines from firehouses.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said Thursday that the county failed to show that "quiet reading" of Playboy during a firefighter's "hours of relaxation" creates a sexually harassing atmosphere in the workplace.Wilson said the Los Angeles County Fire Department policy, designed to provide a nonhostile working environment for women firefighters, violates the First Amendment rights of Steven Johnson, the fire captain who filed the suit.

Johnson, who hailed the decision Thursday as a "(First Amendment) win for both sides," said he may bring Playboy to his Antelope Valley fire station when he returns to work on Monday.

"I respect (people's) rights not to like magazines like Playboy," Johnson told reporters on the steps of the U.S. District courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. "But I want (others) to respect my rights to look at the magazine."

Lester Tolnai, the attorney representing the county, said an appeal is "an excellent likelihood." County officials said they planned to seek a stay.

Two women firefighters who testified in court or through depositions on the Fire Department's behalf, were off-duty and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, condemned the ruling, saying it sends a message that the courts care less about a woman's work environment than Johnson's need to read Playboy.

"The court system still has a lot to learn." Bruce said. "The workplace is not a free marketplace of ideas."

Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman said he still believes the policy is within the law. Freeman said women firefighters have told him they are troubled by the presence of Playboy because it raises questions about the way male firefighters view them.

Male colleagues might be looking at them in a sexual way, he said, instead of with respect. And anything that can divide a staff of firefighters may impede their work, Freeman said.

There are about 2,400 Los Angeles County firefighters and 11 of them are women, according to Tolnai.