The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
by Dick Rogers
March 1, 2006
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit organization protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics community. Founded in 1986 by legendary underground cartoonist and publisher, Denis Kitchen, the CBLDF's guiding principle is that comics deserve the same freedom of expression accorded film, literature, and other media. Thanks to generous support from comics fans and professionals alike, the CBLDF has coordinated and funded the legal defense of more than a dozen First Amendment cases.
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund volunteer Ray Feighery talked to CNW about censorship and the legal battles over mature-themed comics. The packed meeting room learned how the Fund has assisted comic store owners and employees as well as publishers and distributors.
"Comics are an easy target for overzealous District Attorneys building up their careers," said Ray. "They are not always able to put together a strong case, so they prolong the legal process in an attempt to force defendants to buckle under the growing legal fees. People have lost their homes and businesses in some instances."
To date, the Fund has spent over $220,000 fighting the Gordon Lee case. Lee was working in a comic book store on Halloween, giving away comic books to costumed youngsters in Rome, Georgia. Erroneously packed in the "freebie bin" was a copy of Alternative Comics #2 (a leftover from that year's Free Comic Book Day) which Lee handed to a nine-year-old boy. The comic contained, among others, a story by Nick Bertozzi about Pablo Picasso in which the painter is portrayed in the nude—not in a sexual manner—in his studio.
Lee was charged with "distributing material depicting nudity [and] distributing obscene material to a minor." The Fund felt he had simply made a mistake as a retailer, and was able to get the felonies dismissed and the prosecution settled for a single misdemeanor charge.
Ray explained the facts of the Jesus Castillo case as another example. Castillo, a comic shop employee, was arrested and charged with two counts of obscenity for selling adult-themed comic books to adults.
The Fund fought the charges with lawyers and expert testimony. The State Prosecutor did not offer any contradictory evidence... however, his closing argument included the statement, "I don't care what type of evidence or what type of testimony is out there, use your rationality; use your common sense. Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids. We're here to get this off the shelf." Castillo was found guilty, sentenced to 180 days in jail, a year probation and a $4,000 fine. The verdict was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which denied his petition.
"Unfortunately, fighting the right battles is not a guarantee of winning," Fund Director Charles Brownstein said.
Recently the Fund won a victory against US Customs when Top Shelf Comics had a pallet of comics from Europe detained. After a three week delay, Top Shelf received a formal letter accusing two comic books in the lot of being "piratical works."
The accused stories were Richie Bush, a parody of Richie Rich which satirizes the Bush administration and another parody featuring Snoopy and Woodstock. But they are obviously instances of parody and fair use, which are protected by the First Amendment. So the Fund hired a local attorney and in the end Customs released the books and refunded the $250 fee Top Shelf paid to Customs to challenge the seizure.
Ray was a great speaker who inspired a number of CNW members to join CBLDF on the spot.
Contact: Dick Rogers