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DF Interview: A conversation with Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
By Byron Brewer
Charles Brownstein has served as the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund since 2002. During his tenure, the organization has achieved numerous legal victories, been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, and has become the leading source of education and advocacy for combating the rising tide of comics censorship in libraries and schools.
Brownstein is a prolific and sought-out lecturer on the history of comics and censorship who has addressed audiences across the United States, as well as in Canada, Japan, Lebanon, Norway and the United Kingdom. In addition to his work at CBLDF, he also writes extensively about comics; his publications include Eisner/Miller, The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen and Monsters & Titans: Battling Boy Art on Tour.
Brownstein currently serves as the chair of the Banned Books Week Coalition, as well as on the Board of Trustees of the Freedom to Read Foundation, the Board of Directors of the Media Coalition, and on the Steering Committee of the alternative comics festival SPX.
DF recently sat down with Charles Brownstein to discuss the works of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and details on the organization itself.
Dynamic Forces: Charles, I will start with the question that is the first I am asked when discussing the subject: What is the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund? To some minds, the concepts don’t go together.
Charles Brownstein: The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit organization protecting the freedom to read comics! Our work protects readers, creators, librarians, retailers, publishers and educators who face the threat of censorship. We monitor legislation and challenge laws that would limit the First Amendment. We create resources that promote understanding of comics and the rights our community is guaranteed. Every day we publish news and information about censorship events as they happen. We are partners in the Kids’ Right to Read Project and Banned Books Week. Our expert legal team is available at a moment’s notice to respond to First Amendment emergencies. CBLDF is a lean organization that works hard to protect the rights that our community depends on.
DF: How did the organization come into being?
Charles Brownstein: On November 18, 1986, while “monitoring places where youths congregate”, police in Lansing, Illinois, purchased 15 comics from Michael Correa, manager of the comic book store Friendly Frank’s. That December, six officers came back and raided the store, seizing seven titles including Omaha the Cat Dancer, Weirdo and Heavy Metal. Store manager Michael Correa was arrested and dragged off in handcuffs as police officers shut the store down for five days. After the original raid, police added titles such as Elektra: Assassin, Love & Rockets, Ms. Tree and Elfquest to the list of titles under the charge of "display of obscene materials".
Shortly after the arrest, Denis Kitchen, whose Kitchen Sink Press published Omaha the Cat Dancer, met with retailer Greg Ketter and store owner Frank Mangiaracina to discuss defending his manager. They recruited fourteen artists to contribute to a fundraising portfolio, which ended up raising $20,000 that would be applied to the defense of Correa. It was placed into a bank account called Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
On January 1, 1988, Correa was found guilty, fined $750 and sentenced to one year of court supervision. Kitchen, now in possession of the funds from the portfolio, recruited a lawyer for the appeal and found First Amendment pioneer Burton Joseph, co-founder of the Media Coalition & Playboy Foundation. He won the case! Realizing that this wouldn’t be the last time comics were threatened in this fashion, Kitchen directed the leftover funds from the case and filed paperwork to make CBLDF a permanent organization to protect comics.
DF: What kinds of cases does the CBLDF handle? What can it do and what can’t it do?
Charles Brownstein: The CBLDF provides legal referrals, representation, advice, assistance and education to cases affecting the First Amendment right to read, create, publish, sell and distribute comics and graphic novels. We help individuals and businesses who are being criminally prosecuted because of the comic books they read, make, buy or sell. We help creators who are facing legal attack for the expressive content of their work. We help libraries gather resources to defend graphic novel challenges.
However, the CBLDF is a small organization, and our mission only allows direct support to a narrow range of cases directly affecting the First Amendment rights of work within the comic book art form. Because of that, the CBLDF does not manage cases where First Amendment rights are not the central legal issue at hand, or cases that aren’t related to work within the comics art form. We also aren't chartered to aid civil prosecutions, contract or labor disputes, or infringement claims lacking a central First Amendment element.
DF: What other types of support does the organization offer, in terms of publishers and creators?
Charles Brownstein: Education is central to preventing prosecutions, censorship and other kinds of legal action. We provide lectures, workshops and publications to make our community aware of their rights, and train them to defend comics, when the need arises. We publish a weekly newsletter and CBLDF Defender, a quarterly news magazine, alongside other projects like our annual Free Comic Book Day and Banned Books Week publications. We also are partners in groups including Media Coalition, Kids' Right to Read Project, National Coalition Against Censorship, Free Expression Network, Freedom to Read Foundation, Banned Books Week Coalition and others to participate in crafting the big picture of protecting the First Amendment. These partnerships also make a strong base of support when comics are threatened.
DF: Can you cite one of the most difficult cases in which the CBLDF has been involved? How was this challenge circumvented?
Charles Brownstein: Each case provides different sets of challenges, so "most difficult" is hard to cite. Many of our most challenging and rewarding cases never make it to trial because our legal team's early efforts are able to quash the matter before it has to go to court. Our list of public case work can be found here: http://cbldf.org/about-us/case-files/cbldf-case-files/
DF: CBLDF is a non-profit organization. What are some of the ways money has been raised for the cause? Is it usually by the organization? Publishers? Talent?
Charles Brownstein: CBLDF is a team effort that is supported by a wide range of members, from individuals like you, to retail stores, and many of the large corporate organizations. The support of publishers, retailers, talent, and fans is wide ranging, and ensures we can continue to provide our important work.
DF: How can I donate to the CBLDF?
Charles Brownstein: The easiest way is to become a member, which is described here: http://cbldf.org/contribute/membership/
For other ways to donate, people can visit this page: http://cbldf.org/contribute/
Dynamic Forces would like to thank CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.
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