The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) is, in their own words,
The CBLDF steps in on legal cases where censorship or infringement of first amendment rights is involved with the creation, distribution, or sales of the comic books.
I first became aware of the CBLDF in 1993. At that time, my wife and I were thinking about opening a comic book shop. During that period, the Department of Justice was headed by then US Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno had a long history of controversial techniques that she employed as Florida’s State Attorney General to prosecute (some would say persecute) alleged child molesters, and she seemed to have brought that same willingness to her efforts and duties at the federal level. Her clashes with the Branch Davidians and other militia groups may have been the most remembered events of her tenure, but she also engaged a variety of prosecutorial activities designed to limit free speech.
At the Comic Fest ’93 in Philadelphia, we attended a panel put on by the CBLDF, in which we heard about one such effort. Unfortunately, the passage of time has dimmed my recollection of the actual names involved, but the vividness of the outline of the story stuck with me, as these details were enough to cause my wife and I to reconsider the whole venture. The story we were told was, in broad form, as follows.
There was a man who owned a comic shop on the first floor of the building in which he also resided. As part of his offering, he provided adult comics. On one occasion, a young boy entered his shop and tried to purchase an adult comic. The man refused to sell the comic to the boy, stating that the latter was an underage minor and that sale of adult material was against the law. A few days later, the boy returned with his mother, who asked to purchase the comic. The man asserted that he couldn’t sale it to her if her intention was to give it to the boy, as it was against the law to distribute adult material to a minor. The woman insisted that she be allowed to purchase the comic, and that she had no intention of providing it to her son. The man was sure that this wasn’t the case, but he relented anyway. A few days after the sale, the woman, apparently, actually looked at the material in question, and found it to be offensive. She complained to the local authorities, who then promptly arrested the man and seized his store (and as a result his home) and his financial assets under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Although my wife and I would not have considered stocking adult material, this tale ‘scared us straight’, and we abandoned the idea of owning a store. We donated to the CBLDF on the spot at that convention, and we have been supporters since that time.
Over the years, I have supported the CBLDF by way of regular donations, and I believe that this financial support has been money well spent. I say this because, in general, the CBLDF goals of combating government censorship are laudable, and they have defended a variety of worthy causes centering on the creation, sales, and consumption of comics in all its many forms.
Having said all of that, my admiration for their good work does not blind me to some places where their rhetoric crosses the line, and where I judge that their tactics do more harm than good. My attitude towards them changed a bit for the worse when I attended their presentation on comic book censorship at the 2014 Otakon.
The presentation was entitled “History of Comics Censorship” and consisted of a set of Power Point slides that were shown by a CBLDF representative in an hour-long panel. A prose version of the same information is available on their website as a six-part set of web pages – part 1 of which can be found following this link.
In a nutshell, my problem with this presentation (and, as I infer from it, with their viewpoint) is what I will call their overly broad application of the word censorship to divide the world into a sort of ‘us versus them’ picture. As in almost all cases of disagreement of this kind, the root of the problem is the definition. For the record, I cite the following response as an acceptable definition of censorship (received from Google when the search string “censorship definition” was entered):
The operative word in this definition is ‘officially’, which can obtain widely different meanings depending on context. To illustrate these different meanings, let’s examine a few different social contexts.
First consider a household consisting of two parents and one or more minor children. In this context, ‘official’ equates with ‘parental’, and parents can and are expected to act as censors of the materials to which their children are exposed. The fact that different parents will arrive at different conclusions for a given book, movie, or comic in no way invalidates either the permissive or restrictive end that results. It is the responsibility and the privilege of the parent to raise their children the way they see fit. More correctly, I should say that parents are free to raise their children within certain acceptable boundaries as determined by law (i.e., they can’t kill, enslave, maltreat, sell, etc. their children). I have a bit more to say about these boundaries later.
Next consider a business that employs a number of people. In this context, ‘official’ equates with ‘management’, and typically the managers can and must act as censors of the materials that are allowed in their business. Employment law generally demands that managers provide a safe work environment, free from all forms of racism and sexual harassment. As a result, one of the central responsibilities of management is to limit what books can be brought in, what videos can be watched on the internet, etc.
Finally, consider a local, state, or federal government. In this context, ‘official’ equates to ‘law’ or ‘government’. It is in this context that the picture becomes the fuzziest. How much individual liberty should be afforded versus protection to the politic body as a whole? What are the acceptable boundaries in a family or in a business? Can a parent allow his children easy access to pornography? What forms of expression are ‘out of bounds’ for employees and managers? How can a society set acceptable definitions of obscenity? There are no easy answers.
And this is exactly what I find troubling about the presentation I saw from the CBLDF. Their entire motif was one of easy answers. People who are against comic books and comic book creators are bad – people for comics are good. People who burned comic books in the streets are portrayed as ignorant peasants, when they could as easily be portrayed as righteous protesters exercising their free speech? Public school boards who remove certain materials from a library or who ban certain books are put on par with the Nazis. But every day, school boards ‘ban’ many books either through budgetary reasons (they can’t afford to buy them), or regulatory reasons (e.g., the anarchists cookbook or child pornography) or through a sense of good taste (e.g., the manifesto of the Ku Klux Klan).
I had hopes to see an adult discussion that recognized that there are valid points on both sides, and that what must be combatted is the coercive arm of the government in all contexts. I expected to see civil liberties broadly embraced – including the liberty to burn books and persuade school boards, and to lobby Congress. What I saw instead was a set of propaganda materials that divided the world into black and white; that ridiculed their opponents as being ignorant, or stupid, or reactionary jack-booted thugs.
For those who are wondering, I still plan on donating to the CBLDF in 2015, but I hope that by writing this blog I can coax them into seeing a few more shades of gray.