SDCC: State of the CBLDF!

Another Comic-Con is upon us, and thanks to the generosity of our members, corporate members, sponsors and supporters, we’ve developed a week full of great programs, parties, and an unforgettable auction to raise money for our important First Amendment program work. From Master Sessions with comics greats Gilbert Shelton, Charlie Adlard and Jason Shiga, to booth signings with genius creators including Chip Kidd, Raina Telgemeier, and Francesco Francavilla and a huge array of guests at our Thursday night welcome party, the creative community is coming out in droves to meet our contributors.

As the week’s festivities begin to get underway, I’d like to take a moment to update you on all the important work CBLDF has done to protect comics’ First Amendment rights so far this year, and how your donations make a difference in performing those efforts!

Legal Aid

Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Canadian government dropped all charges against Ryan Matheson, the American comic book reader who was wrongfully accused of importing child pornography for the humor and fantasy manga on his laptop computer.

Ryan’s case was resolved because his CBLDF-aided defense was able to deploy persuasive arguments regarding the illegal nature of Ryan’s arrest and the constitutional protection the manga he possessed enjoys in the United States, as well as in Canada and Japan. The CBLDF provided substantive support in the form of expert witnesses and monetary aid. To date, the Fund has paid $30,000 of Ryan’s $75,000 legal fees. Last year our allies at Canada’s Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund put in $11,000. Currently, the CBLDF is fundraising to restore the remaining $34,000 that Ryan and his family paid before the CBLDF became aware of his case. We can’t give him back the years of his life that this case disrupted, but thanks to the generosity of our supporters we can try to restore the hit to his financial life that his case represented. Ryan will appear at San Diego Comic-Con this Saturday to talk about his case, and I hope to see you there!

Outside of Ryan’s case, the CBLDF has been busy quietly assisting in cases before they go to court. Last spring, we helped resolve a dispute between an artist and a company making overly broad rights claims that would have infringed on his First Amendment parody rights. We are currently at work attempting to shut down a police investigation against a reader of comics in the manga and furry genres whose property was illegally seized by local law enforcement as they were investigating bogus allegations of possession of child pornography.

On the legal advocacy front, the Fund has participated in several successful cases, most notably:

We were a plaintiff in a case that successfully knocked out a sweeping Utah electronic censorship law that would have placed severe restrictions on internet content. The law sought to crack down on “harmful to minors” content by requiring the state Attorney General to create a blacklist of websites who chose not to register as hosting such content and imposing criminal penalties on those that did not comply with the law.

An amicus brief we joined in U.S. v. Alvarez influenced the Supreme Court decision to strike down the Stolen Valor Act as unconstitutional. In a principled decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition.”

The CBLDF raised awareness of an underreported Arizona bill that would have severely curtailed online speech, resulting in extensive news coverage that ultimately led the legislature to narrow the focus of the bill in a way that was constitutionally acceptable. Law scholar and pundit Eugene Volokh credited CBLDF with bringing the case to his attention.

Library Support

Challenges to graphic novels in libraries remain a contentious area, and the CBLDF has been active in assisting in these matters. Most recently, we wrote a letter in opposition to the removal of Alan Moore’s Neonomicon in South Carolina with our colleagues at the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. The book was correctly racked in the adult section of the library, and a mother who gave written permission for her 14-year-old daughter to check books out of the adult collection and who approved the book being checked out with a “flip-test” later objected to the title by filing a formal challenge and alerting the media about the book’s adult content. This case is still pending, but sources inside the library are optimistic the title will be restored. Earlier this year, we wrote a letter in support of Ariel Schrag’s Stuck in the Middle after a challenge in a Maine school library, and the book was returned to circulation.

This September marks the second year that the Fund will be a sponsor of Banned Books Week, the nationally recognized celebration of the Freedom to Read. In August the CBLDF will be publishing tools for comic stores and libraries about how they can create events to raise awareness of graphic novel censorship.


International Outreach

In May I was privileged to visit Tokyo at the invitation of the Institute of Contents Culture to participate in meetings with government and industry officials and to give a talk at a symposium about censorship of manga in the United States. While I was there, I spoke with members of the Diet and the Democratic Party of Japan in a mutual fact-finding exchange about the status of legal attacks on comics in our countries. I was the main speaker at a symposium on international manga censorship, where my presentation on cases against manga in the United States introduced our case history to an assembled audience of scholars, legal professionals, and enthusiasts. This presentation significantly raised awareness of issues facing manga in America, and even more importantly, raised a call for international cooperation and solidarity to protect manga content. Later this summer, the CBLDF will be co-publishing the video from this presentation and the PowerPoint presentation with the ICC in Japan.

Legal Education in the United States

So far, 2012 has been extremely fruitful for advancing the discussion of First Amendment issues facing comics in the United States. To date, the Fund has delivered 15 presentations on these issues to audiences ranging from the legal community, to regional and national library audiences, to academic symposiums, as well as consumer environments in comic and manga convention spaces.

In May, we assisted in organizing and presenting a Continuing Legal Education seminar for the New York State Bar Association called “Is Manga a Crime? Non-photographic Images, Child Pornography, and Freedom of Expression.” The program included presentations by Michael Delohery, Chief of the High Technology Crime Bureau in the Westchester county DA’s office; Amy Adler, the Emily Kempin Professor of Law for NYU’s School of Law; and myself. The seminar addressed casework against comics, with an emphasis on recent cases attacking readers for possession of manga using provisions of the PROTECT Act that label drawings as child pornography. The session included a publication compiling important cases in this area. This event successfully introduced CBLDF’s casework to a legal community that was largely unaware of how laws designed to combat child pornography are being twisted to attack readers of comics. It also spurred dialogue with the prosecutorial community about why attacking art is detrimental to the government’s compelling interest in combating the actual sexual abuse of children that the PROTECT Act is designed to combat.

That same month, Marc H. Greenberg, a professor at Golden Gate University’s School of Law published an extensive case study of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and its important work in the Loyola Entertainment Law Review.

I was privileged to speak to library audiences at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference last month and at the Long Island Library Conference in May. I delivered our presentation “With Great Stories Comes Great Responsibility: The Power of Comics In 21st Century Libraries” to both events, which were both well attended and well received. This presentation speaks to the value of comics and graphic novels in libraries and provides historical context to challenges against the medium in a fashion that introduces the history of comics censorship and CBLDF casework.

So far this year the CBLDF has exhibited at 16 conventions, where we distributed educational information. At several of these events we were able to present our talks “The History of Comics Censorship” and “Is Manga a Crime?” At Comic-Con we’ll be presenting seven programs, including both of those presentations; a discussion about Censorship and female artists; three Master Sessions with prominent cartoonists Charlie Adlard, Gilbert Shelton, and Jason Shiga; and a Live Art Jam.

Online Resources

So far, 2012 has shown a significant expansion of CBLDF’s online education activities, expansion that will only continue in the months to come. maintains a daily news blog that includes breaking news and historical interest stories on domestic and international censorship of comics. This spring we took on several new bloggers who contribute to our daily mix, alongside editor Betsy Gomez and fellow staffers. The CBLDF’s blog strives to create an information-rich presentation of the free expression issues facing comics and a space for the community invested in those issues to speak their mind. Last January we launched CBLDF News, a weekly email newsletter we send out every Friday.

More to Come

As we complete 2012, the Fund will be deploying several projects that will advance our important work. These include:

· Retailer Membership tool kit for direct market retailers.
· Manga Best Practices tool kit for libraries to assist in collection development and defense.
· Banned Books Week 2012 tool kit and public events
· Major Expansion of and online newsletter
· Public presentations and exhibitions at major comic book, manga and book festivals.

The CBLDF is able to perform all of this important work because of the support of donors like you. If you’re at Comic-Con this week, please come by our booth 1920 or any of our events, to see some of the terrific rewards our team have been able to gather to thank you for your donations. Most of all, please stop by and say hello so we can personally thank you for your support of our important work!

Charles Brownstein is the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.