What the Saga #12 Controversy Says About Self-Censorship

saga12review-1Last week, comics fans and internet denizens raged at Apple over the alleged ban of Saga #12, presumably over graphic images of homosexual sex. The truth proved to be more complicated — and potentially more concerning — than many were led to believe.

Apple didn’t decline to publish the book; comiXology did so based on their understanding of Apple’s content policies. In their press statement, comiXology CEO David Steinberger explains:

As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps.  Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today.

Steinberger further reiterates that Apple did not reject the book, and it is now available through comiXology and Apple’s App Store.

While it may seem that all’s well that ends well, what has many concerned about the story is that comiXology took the route of self-censorship, a route that comics fans are all too familiar with. It should be made clear that this isn’t a case of self-censorship to avoid government sanctions, as was the case with print comics in the 1950s, and Apple is fully within its rights to set guidelines for what it will publish. However, a growing number of people are concerned that publishers and creators are censoring their creative work to ensure that Apple, Amazon, and other digital outlets distribute it.

David Price with Macworld UK took a look at the language in Apple’s content policies, explaining that much of the urge to self-censor lies in Apple’s own policy, which reads in part:

“We will reject Apps for any content or behaviour that we believe is over the line,” Apple writes in its App Store Review Guidelines [developer login required]. “What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

This statement refers to the 1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio case, in which Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stated that “I know it when I see it” in reference to hardcore pornography. The case ultimately did little to define obscene (and therefore unprotected) speech, so using it as a reference in defining content policy is vague and certainly confusing. (For more on Jacobellis, check out our recent Obscenity Case File.)

Price describes how Apple’s position as the leading digital outlet drives self-censorship:

With iTunes and its App Store, Apple is in a phenomenally powerful position with regards to the dissemination of cultural offerings, and of course the rules it imposes will have an effect on the sort of material that is produced. If ComiXology was under the impression that gay sex wasn’t allowed, it’s reasonable to imagine that other creative firms were too, and chose not to depict or refer to this in their work so that they would be able to sell through Apple. Brian K Vaughan complained; not everyone would have done the same thing in his position.

Stuart Dredge with The Guardian also looked at the chilling effect of self-censorship, relating that the Saga story is “…also just the latest reason for an important public debate on the nature and policies of the new wave of media and entertainment gatekeepers on smartphones and tablets: Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and BlackBerry.”

Dredge notes Apple’s own actions in enforcing its App Store content policies reinforce self-censorship by content providers:

This is also a warning for Apple though, for approval policies that still need to be second-guessed.

From satirical cartoons and bare breasts in a digital graphic-novel of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 2010, through games drawing attention to sweatshops and other dodgy labour practices in 2011 and again in 2013, taking in a topical news game about Syria along the way, these controversies keep happening.

Dredge also discusses the “I know it when I see it” line of Apple’s policy:

The overwhelming majority of iOS apps aren’t anywhere near that line. But there’s an important debate to be had about how developers and content distributors who are (as well as authors, artists, activists…) can recognise it – and, indeed, on whether the line is drawn in the right place.

Andy Khouri with Comics Alliance spoke with Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson about the circumstances surrounding the alleged ban. Stephenson is a staunch advocate for creator rights and stood behind Saga #12 and its creators when reports of the ban initially surfaced:

CA: How did this sequence of events differ in the case of Saga #12? What was the initial message you received from ComiXology on the matter?

ES: The initial message was essentially, “The content is problematic; here’s what we can do to make the best of the situation.” And in that regard, I think ComiXology did exactly what needed to be done. My initial response to [ComiXology CEO] David [Steinberger] was that I didn’t want to sit and moan about how Apple wouldn’t allow this up, I wanted to hear about how we’re going to take this opportunity to direct traffic to the web stores on ComiXology’s and Image’s sites.

Khoury glanced off the issue of self-censorship when he asked Stephenson about comiXology’s decision to not submit the book to Apple in light of Apple’s content policies, which Khoury describes as “somehow at once specific and vague with respect to sexual content.” Khoury notes that the terms of service seem “pretty confusing,” and Stephenson agrees in his response, adding: “At the end of the day, I don’t see why the standards and guidelines should be any different for digital comics than print.”

Khoury asked Stephenson about whether Image will take a different course with digital distribution in the future:

Our support for our creators and their work isn’t going to change, and in terms of how we deal with ComiXology, there wasn’t anything we did or didn’t do that created the situation, so there’s nothing to change there. That said, I don’t anticipate it will be a problem going forward. ComiXology seems to have the situation well enough in hand at this point.

Apple is within their rights to decline to release a book through their App Store. However, many argue that had Apple’s content policies been clearer, more explicit, and more consistently enforced, the availability of Saga #12 would never have been in question.

For more on the story, visit Macworld UK, The Guardian, and Comics Alliance. CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein discussed how Saga #12 is protected by the First Amendment in this article and additional CBLDF coverage can be found here, here, and here.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.