Michael L. Brown never set out to slay any giants.
He just thought he and the rest of the world ought to be able to walk through the supermarket checkout line without being exposed to what he calls "sexual smut."
Yesterday, he got part of what he wanted when Giant Food, the area's largest supermarket chain, disclosed that one aisle of each store will soon be tabloid-free. It is believed to be the first time a major supermarket chain has taken such a step.
But a Giant spokesman yesterday emphasized that the action is not in response to protests from Mr. Brown, who this spring started a petition campaign asking that tabloid publications such as the National Enquirer and the Globe and magazines -- including Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle -- be removed from Giant checkout aisles.
"We had periodically heard complaints about the tabs" for years, said Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant, which has 154 stores in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
The revisions are only being done now, he said, because there is "significant" work involved in installing new racks in the stores.
Giant already has a "no-candy" aisle in each store, instituted several years ago in response to the request of parents who wanted to be able to shop without exposing their children to the candy temptation. When new racks are completed in a few weeks, those "no-candy" aisles will also become "no-tabloid" aisles.
But Mr. Brown -- who lives in Olney and is dean of the Messiah Biblical Institute and Graduate School of Theology in Gaithersburg -- wants much more.
"We have to aggressively continue our campaign to demonstrate to Giant how many people are offended," he said. "Our feedback shows us that about half [of supermarket customers] are offended by the tabloids and our solution is to make half of the check-out aisles free of offensive material."
"This is an issue that people are concerned about," added Mr. Brown, who has a doctorate in Near Eastern languages from New York University. "These publications are degrading to women, they glorify sex and violence."
Giant sees people's concern from another perspective, however.
"Our position is that we are the customer's purchasing agent and we sell a lot of these magazines because a lot of people want them," Mr. Scher said.
Mr. Brown has concentrated on Giant because it is the biggest supermarket chain in the area and because of its "customer bill of rights" encouraging consumer feedback. He said he hopes that his efforts will spill over both locally and around the country to other supermarkets that prominently display tabloids.
Some of the publications that Mr. Brown is targeting reacted yesterday to his campaign with comments ranging from amused to defensive.
"We deal in gossip but not in sexual explicitness," said Phil Bunton, editorial director of the Globe. "I think that the majority of Americans have a far more realistic view of what the tabloids are really about, and realize we're not undermining the morals of the country."
"Cosmopolitan has to remain true to its editorial principles," said Sean Sullivan, a spokesman for the magazine. "Anyone has the right to buy or not to buy our magazine."
And Iain Calder, president and editor of the National Enquirer, insisted that his tabloid is "probably the most conservative publication around."
"You'd see sexier pictures in your local newspapers than you would in the National Enquirer," he said. "We're very much a family paper. People who talk about the Enquirer in the context of two-headed babies clearly haven't read us in 20 years."
From a civil liberties point of view, said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Dr. Brown "has the right to petition to get them to change." But he questioned the result of such activity.
"It's better to have ideas out there than not have them," he said, adding that attempts by fundamentalist religious groups to squelch free speech flourished in the '80s and remain "alive and well today."
Comparing Mr. Brown's campaign to boycotts and other activities in the mid-'80s that pressured Seven-Elevens and other convenience stores to stop carrying magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, Mr. Comstock-Gay added, "The fundamentalist movement has a right to say, 'We think you shouldn't express these ideas,' but if we buy into this censorship we run the risk of becoming a less free society."
His opinion is shared by Christopher Finan, executive director of the Media Coalition, a New York-based group that represents thousands of book and magazine sellers and publishers, especially on censorship issues.
"He has the First Amendment right to petition, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that he's trying to take away others' freedom to read what they want," Mr. Finan said.