August 22, 2007

To entertain and protect

And yet another post begins with "So I heard this story on NPR..."

Today's NPR-provided news is of Gordon Lee, founder of Legends, a comic book store in Rome, Georgia. According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's website (more on that group later, by the way), the case comes down to this:
During Halloween week 2004, Gordon Lee’s comic shop, Legends, of Rome, GA, participated in a trick-or-treat event in downtown Rome by distributing free comics. "Alternative Comics #2," the Free Comic Book Day edition from publisher Alternative Comics for 2004, was inadvertently included in the mix of books being given away. The comic was a single copy among thousands of comics being given away that day, and was accidentally handed to a minor, whose parent filed a complaint with the police.

The comic book features a variety of stories from the company's line, including an excerpt from Nick Bertozzi's now published graphic novel The Salon, depicting the first meeting between Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. On three pages of the eight page section, Picasso is depicted in the nude, a factually accurate detail for the period during which the story is set. There is no sexual content in the story.

Upon learning of the error in distributing the comic, Lee admitted that a mistake was made and offered to make a public apology for the first of many times. That apology was rejected, however, so days later, Lee was arrested.
Now upon initial reading, I wasn't entirely sure that such an action should be forgivable. The man gave a comic with nudity to a child - depending on when the details of the case were given - of the age of either six or nine or children of both. Perhaps the parents overreacted, for I certainly doubt whether seeing a comic book with a fat, nude artist in it would scar a child for life, but giving the kid a nuddie mag doesn't seem quite right.

Upon further reading, however, the law with which Lee has been charged sates that it is illegal...
(1) for “distributing a book, pamphlet, magazine, and printed matter containing pictures, drawings and visual representation and images of a person an portion of the human body which depict sexually explicit nudity, sexual conduct, and sadomasochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors;” and (2) for knowingly furnishing and disseminating to a minor materials “containing explicit and detailed verbal descriptions and narrative accounts of sexual excitement, sexual conduct, and sadomasochistic abuse and which taken as a whole is harmful to minors.”
...doesn't seem in the least to describe a graphic novel (note the change in terminology's subtle but powerful to use semantics in the argument, I'll admit) that lacks sexual content and retells a historically-signficant (in the art world, at least) event which happens to involve a rather gnomish, naked man.

There are a number of other details to the case which make me hopeful that Lee is found not guilty:

  • The prosecution changed the charges on the eve of the April, 2006 trial.

  • Prosecution changed the charges a second time in special session of the Grandy Jury without notifying the defense team.

  • Lee has a history with this prosecution office:
    In fact, this is not his first run-in with a Georgia obscenity law. In a 1993 case, Lee was convicted of selling a pornographic comic book to an adult. In the process, says Cadle, who defended him in that case, police illegally seized hundreds of “obscene” comic books, and refused to return them. Cadle sued the city and the district attorney’s office on Lee’s behalf and won an $18,000 judgment along with a court order requiring the return of the books. “I think what we’re seeing today is in part retaliation from them,” says Begner. Paterson denies this, saying that she did not work on the 1993 case and that the prior conviction is only significant as an aggravating factor. Cadle did not comment on possible retaliation, saying only “I think [Lee] would be possibly facing a stiffer penalty if convicted. You’d rather take a client into court who has no record.”
...but the fact that one prosecutor has acted oddly and is pursuing a case that seems, at best, overly harsh if not downright spurious.

Instead, the part that truly bothers me is in the continuing erosion of our freedoms that we see happening all around us. The text of the first amendment is simple, and it is something that should be memorized and learned by every person in the United States. It is probably more important to know and defend the following words than it is to be able to quote the first lines of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution Itself:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Thankfully there are a few organizations out there that regularly fight to defend the first ammendment.And lots of them are out there particularly fighting to help protect the rights of comic book creators. The ALA put out some recommendations for great teen graphic novels and advice for librarians in defending their graphic novel choices. The CBLDF also has put together a fair bit of work on why graphic novels aren't just for kids and shouldn't be treated as such. And a neat-looking t-shirt...

We all need to remember that any erosion of our freedom that doesn't happen to catch us this time just lays the ground work for our own freedoms to be taken later down the road.

I'll close today with a plea from Jim Lee for donations to the CBLDF. So get out there any buy a t-shirt or something, folks.

And thanks, by the by, to any friends and fellow bloggers who might've pushed the limits themselves last year.


achilles3 said...

YOU ROCK!!!!!!!!
I'm very proud to say that I know the First Amendment by heart...and a couple of my favorite kids in the world do as well:-)

I'm so pumped that you brought that BS to my attention. You totally need to read Kav and Clay now because there is some of that in the story that is well done.

Best 45 words ever written.

J. Kyle said...

When it comes to freedom of speech, comics suffer under a major double standard. A lot of Americans still assume comics are for kids, and they see any sale of comics with mature content as a threat.

Some comics retailers have been arrested for merely selling "adult" comics in the vicinity of children, even though they never actually sold such comics to minors. Compare that to bookstores that very legally carry both sex books and children's books.

Or take Mike Diana, the author of Boiled Angel, who was convicted of obscenity. As part of his punishment he was forbidden from drawing comics, even in private. Imagine what would happen if courts tried to bar an author of erotic literature from writing in his own house!

PHSChemGuy said...

Lakes - you should be proud. The Odin's Word censoring last year was appropriately a black mark for the school. And I'll certainly get to Kav & Clay sometime before the end of the school year.

Kyle - I read about the Diana decision in researching this post and was amazed. Of course it's not rare for me to see at least one instance every day where people decide to restrict freedom in favor of protection in a way that I don't agree with. I know it's a continuum with some people erring on the side of freedom and others on the side of security, but I'm amazed at how far on the security side some people are willing to go - and often to follow their decisions up with logic of "well, as long as you don't do anything wrong, what do you care?"