Burton Joseph, pioneering First Amendment advocate and long serving legal counsel for Comic Book Legal Defense Fund died at his home in San Francisco on March 31 at the age of 79.
Beloved across the First Amendment world for his passion, kindness, humanity, and wit, Joseph was regarded as a titan for free expression.
Judith Platt, Director of the Freedom to Read, Association of American Publishers says, “Burt Joseph was living proof that you can be passionate and principled in what you believe without becoming a zealot. His commitment to free expression never got in the way of his unfailing civility and courtesy, even to those with whom he disagreed.”
Joseph’s career achievements represent an overview of some of the most important intellectual freedom battles of the 20th Century. First Amendment Law Association President Alan Begner says, “Burt’s accomplishments were numerous and extraordinary, including: Defender of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer against censorship efforts; defender of Martin Slate, who sought to create an open slate of delegates at the 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention; counsel to the American Booksellers Association in ABA v. Hudmut (challenge to feminist inspired pornography ordinance) and ABA v. Virginia (challenge to ‘harmful to minors’ display laws); and counsel to Playboy Entertainment Group in Playboy Entertainment Group v. U.S. (Telecommunications Act ‘signal bleed’ provision unconstitutional).”
In addition to his courtroom activities, Joseph was also a founding member and former chair of the Media Coalition, and counsel to Playboy Enterprises and the Playboy Foundation. He became involved with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund at its inception in 1986, leading the appeal to overturn the conviction of Illinois comic store clerk Michael Correa. His efforts succeeded. In the 1990s, Joseph became Legal Counsel to the organization, a role he remained in until his passing.
CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “In the First Amendment world, Burt Joseph was a titan whose efforts advanced the cause of free expression greatly. His work ensured that creativity across a variety of media could blossom in new and exciting ways. As counsel to Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Burt was a passionate advocate for comics and helped ensure that the medium could continue to mature. But beyond his professional expertise, Burt was a terrific human being, whose wit, curiosity, and kindness will be deeply missed.”
For more about Burt Joseph, please visit the New York Times’ obituary; the Chicago Tribune’s two-page tribute; The Chicago Sun-Times obituary, and the San Francisco Chronicle obituary. Colleen K. Connell, Executive Director of the Illinois ACLU, memorializes Burt in a post to the ACLU’s website, which includes an 8-part interview with Burt. Comic-related website ICv2 remembers Burt here. The CBLDF also offers tributes from Burt’s friends and colleagues below:
President, First Amendment Lawyers Association
It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Burton “Burt” Joseph, one of the most revered First Amendment lawyers in America. Burt’s accomplishments were numerous and extraordinary, including: Defender of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer against censorship efforts; defender of Martin Slate, who sought to create an open slate of delegates at the 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention; counsel to the American Booksellers Association in ABA v. Hudmut (challenge to feminist inspired pornography ordinance) and ABA v. Virginia (challenge to “harmful to minors” display laws); and counsel to Playboy Entertainment Group in Playboy Entertainment Group v. U.S. (Telecommunications Act “signal bleed” provision unconstitutional).
Burt was a founding member and former chair of the Media Coalition, a First Amendment group whose membership includes the American Booksellers Association, the Motion Picture Association, the Magazine Publishers of America and more than a dozen other media trade associations and foundations, including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Burt also served as counsel to Playboy Enterprises and the Playboy Foundation.
In 2004, a Rome, Georgia comic book retailer was arrested and charged with serious crimes for allowing a boy to receive a copy of a comic book depicting Pablo Picasso painting a picture of a woman, while both were nude (an historically accurate fact). The CBLDF took up Gordon Lee’s defense and Burt recommended that my partner, Cory and I be retained as lead counsel. We battled the case for more than 3 years, and the charges were ultimately dismissed. Throughout the case, Burt lent his extraordinary knowledge and wisdom to the cause. His passion and zeal for defense of the First Amendment, already legendary, were vital to our success.
As President of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, a group of this country’s most prominent First Amendment lawyers, I spent 17 years in the presence of this First Amendment legend, who, as a member of our organization, was a mentor to us all. On behalf of our approximately 175 members, I write to remember a man who believed that defense of free speech is the worthiest of causes. Even though the famous sought him out, common men and women were his heroes.
Years ago I bought a sign that came from a western town in the cowboy days that reads, “Honorable lawyer 1 flight up.” I looked at it today, thought of Burt, and smiled.
Christopher M. Finan
President, American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression
I was very fortunate to work with Burt during the censorship wars of the 1980s. He taught me to keep fighting — and laughing.
It’s particularly hard to lose someone who found so much joy in life and shared it with others. I will always remember the last time I saw Burt. It was a dinner held in honor of his election to the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) Honor Roll. His charming wife and their three vivacious daughters were there. There was a lot of wine, of course, and tremendous merriment.
Burt was an inspiration is so many ways.
Founder, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
The origins of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund began with a spurious bust of a shop called Friendly Frank’s in suburban Chicago in late 1986. I was the publisher of Kitchen Sink Press at the time and one of my titles, Omaha the Cat Dancer, was among the titles seized by police officers who charged the manager, Michael Correa, with displaying obscene material. But according to the local newspaper account the sergeant leading the seizures thought the shop was full of “satanic influences,” including a Wonder Woman poster. I was mortified that police officers with religious motivations could shut down a business and send a man to jail.
The owner of the shop, Frank Mangiaracina, hired a local defense attorney with no First Amendment experience and, to my further mortification, Correa was found guilty. The ACLU at the time showed no interest whatever in helping. Indignant, I organized sympathetic artists and published a fund-raising portfolio, received support from distributors and retailers and raised over $20,000 to fund the initial CBLDF war chest and appeal the case. But I wanted somebody top notch to take the case to the appellate level. This is how I came to know Burt Joseph.
I learned that Burt had been involved with the Playboy Foundation, had defended Vietnam war protesters and was involved in numerous key obscenity cases. On paper he was certainly qualified. But it was when I first talked to Burt that I became sold. Though of quiet demeanor and even self-effacing, he too was indignant. Unlike the blase ACLU spokesman, Burt didn’t feel comic books weren’t serious enough to defend. He passionately cared about the First Amendment. He found the original bust to be an outrageous violation. I loved that he shared our industry’s sense of moral violation. But appealing the case had to be done on purely legal and technical grounds and he stressed that it would be no slam dunk. There were tactical limitations. But as he laid out his strategy I felt confident that if we were going to prevail, he was the man to do it.
Burt Joseph did successfully overturned Correa’s conviction in 1989. At that point the CBLDF was a permanent organization and Burt became the Fund’s official counsel. As President for most of the organization’s first two decades, I periodically talked to and met personally with Burt. When business was off the table and we could have a quiet drink at a hotel I found him to be a thoroughly entertaining as well as a wise man. He was full of anecdotes, courtroom war stories and tremendous insights into human nature, law and politics.
The comics industry, and other First Amendment constituencies, have lost a great friend and warrior.
Louise Nemschoff, Secretary, CBLDF Board of Directors
It was an honor and privilege to know Burt and work with him on behalf of the Fund. As one of the top First Amendment lawyers in the country, he was a tireless and gallant of free speech rights for all Americans. He will be sorely missed.
Director, Freedom to Read, Association of American Publishers
Burt Joseph was living proof that you can be passionate and principled in what you believe without becoming a zealot. His commitment to free expression never got in the way of his unfailing civility and courtesy, even to those with whom he disagreed. Burt lived the Dalai Lama’s observation “my religion is kindness.” The First Amendment community has lost a true champion. I’ve lost a beloved friend.