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Comic Book Legal Defense Fund


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Helpin to protect 1st ammendment rights, especially in the realm of comics, the CBLDF offers such services as legal assistance to creators/artists/writers whose works are under the gun of cnesorship.  Backed heavily by Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and numerous others, this organization has become quite reputable in the last few years.  It's worth a look.

Comic Book Legal Defense Fund




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Michigan protects children, threatens retailers


This week’s “haven’t we been here before?” moment comes thanks to the state of Michigan, where, on January 1st, it will become illegal to display, disseminate, or sell sexually explicit material to minors. The spirit of the law is good, but it always returns to the eternal phrase, as asked by George Michael: “What’s your definition of dirty, baby? What do you consider pornography?”


According to the act (HB 4360 - an amendedment to an earlier law), which was sponsored by Michigan State Representative Triette Reeves (D), and signed into law by Governor Jennifer Granholmn (D), Michigan’s definition of dirty goes something like this:


(a) “Sexually explicit matter” means sexually explicit visual material, sexually explicit verbal material, or sexually explicit performance.

(b) “Sexually explicit performance” means a motion picture, exhibition, show, representation, or other presentation that, in whole or in part, depicts nudity, sexual excitement, erotic fondling, sexual intercourse, or sadomasochistic abuse.

© “Sexually explicit verbal material” means a book, pamphlet, magazine, printed matter reproduced in any manner, or sound recording that contains an explicit and detailed verbal description or narrative account of sexual excitement, erotic fondling, sexual intercourse, or sadomasochistic abuse.

(d) “Sexually explicit visual material” means a picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, or similar visual representation that depicts nudity, sexual excitement, erotic fondling, sexual intercourse, or sadomasochistic abuse, or a book, magazine, or pamphlet that contains such a visual representation. An undeveloped photograph, mold, or similar visual material may be sexually explicit material notwithstanding that processing or other acts may be required to make its sexually explicit content apparent.


And the means of distribution of said materials outlined by Michigan include:


(a) “Display” means to put or set out to view or to make visible.

(b) “Disseminate” means to sell, lend, give, exhibit, show, or allow to examine or to offer or agree to do the same.

© “Exhibit” means to do 1 or more of the following:

(i) Present a performance.

(ii) Sell, give, or offer to agree to sell or give a ticket to a performance.

(iii) Admit a minor to premises where a performance is being presented or is about to be presented.

(d) “Minor” means a person less than 18 years of age.

(e) “Restricted area” means any of the following:

(i) An area where sexually explicit matter is displayed only in a manner that prevents public view of the lower 2/3 of the matter’s cover or exterior.

(ii) A building, or a distinct and enclosed area or room within a building, if access by minors is prohibited, notice of the prohibition is prominently displayed, and access is monitored to prevent minors from entering.

(iii) An area with at least 75% of its perimeter surrounded by walls or solid, nontransparent dividers that are sufficiently high to prevent a minor in a nonrestricted area from viewing sexually explicit matter within the perimeter if the point of access provides prominent notice that access to minors is prohibited.


It doesn’t take a law degree to figure out that the Michigan Family Forum supports the new law, while the American Civil Liberties Union opposes it.


As with Arkansas’ similar statue, the intent of the Michigan law (save the children from naughty bits and impure thoughts) is clear, but as with its Southern neighbor, the Michigan law’s wording is broad enough to include the recently departed Screw magazine to the Bible. Comics are not mentioned, but given the description of materials that are, it’s easy to see how they could fall somewhere between © and (d) of the definition section of the law above.


Again, the law does not absolutely prohibit said materials from being in stores, just that, as the AR law stipulated, the bottom 2/3rds of their covers must be hidden, or they must be placed in a restricted access area of the store (behind the counter, a separate room or area) – where minors cannot gain access.


Techincally, under the law, it could be argued that no minor could legally buy anything from Watchmen to Alisa Kwitney’s recent Sandman: King of Dreams hardcover to any number of other projects, such as Cloudfall by Robert Kirkman, or even a work with what could be seen as innocent nudity.


One caveat – educators are not covered in the law, so no police will be busting school art classes or heath classes. However – if said high school art student were to try and buy a book – say, Frank Cho, Illustrator at their local major bookstore chain, that would be illegal. Parents are likewise exempt, so no dad will be carted off if junior finds the porno stash.


But that’s just the material that can be seen clearly. The devil is in the law’s lack of detail – for example, does the brief mention of the sex act described in Batman #620 mean that the book is “sexually explicit verbal material?” Is the scene from the recent, ballyhooed Avengers #71 “sexually explicit visual material?” What about the Emma Frost series with covers that would be of interest to a dromedary’s podiatrist?


And then there’s the old bugaboo – who’s to say people dressed in costumes, perhaps those that include fishnet stockings for example, isn’t really just sadomasochistic activity? Every now and then a bondage cover will creep into the mainstream, but who’s to say it’s not sexual in nature?


Who’s to say that the mere word “blowjob” isn’t an “explicit and detailed verbal description or narrative account of sexual excitement, erotic fondling, sexual intercourse, or sadomasochistic abuse?” Likewise the mere word "rape?"


Who’s to say the following aren’t against the law to be sold to minors in Michigan starting on January 1st:

Matt Wagner’s Grendel saga (take your pick of arcs)

Will Eisner’s A Contract With God

Brian Bendis & Mike Oeming’s Powers

Sandman trade paperbacks


Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha


And those are the clear “violators” of the new law – again, under the law all nudity is sexual in nature, from the obvious of Jesse and Tulip in Preacher to an illustrated Bible. Borderline cases could include everything from the aforementioned Avengers #71 to Love Hina, which, could arguably be seen as one extended Three’s Company episode with an underage Jack Tripper, and a schoolful of Chrissys and Janets - after all, in volume 1, there's plenty of nudity.


There’s probably some comfort that can be taken in that last one – given the popularity of Love Hina, it’s audience (teen girls) and it’s primary sales location (bookstores) – those opposing the law in Michigan will most likely have an ally in Border’s and Barnes and Noble.


But back to the earlier question - who’s to say what’s illegal and what’s not? The Michigan courts – after charges have been filed and a retailer hauled into court. Given the arguments used by the prosecution and the outcome of the Jesus Castillo case, a win for the retailer and a firm grip of the reality of the comic book medium by the jury is not a certainty.


The wording of the law makes it tricky for retailers, who are not just prohibited from selling materials to minors, but are prohibited from displaying said materials from minors, using the 2/3rds shield to cover up anything with a sexually explicit cover or content. So – in a given comic shop, where, by current market estimates, a large percentage of the customers are over 18 (to put it lightly), comic retailers would be required by law to hide merchandise or make it more difficult to see or reach.


The punishment portion of the new law is equally broad, stating that :


“A person knows the status of a minor if the person either is aware that the person who is permitted to view the matter is under 18 years of age or recklessly disregards a substantial risk that the person who is permitted to view the matter is under 18 years of age.” That is, if a retailer knows someone is under 18 and merely shows them what the state deems to be a “sexually explicit” cover, or if the retailer doesn’t know about the law and doesn’t block 2/3rds of the covers on January 1, and someone under 18 comes in the store - or in all cases – an adult comes in the store, sees what they feel is “sexually explicit” on the cover or in the content (anything from Love Hina to Watchmen - and that’s not even getting into Japanese tentacle porn), and reports the store to the police. With the new law zero transaction has to take place. Displaying is the crime.


Could the police come in, look at the material in question, and tell the person who complained to calm down? Sure. Would they? If they’re comfortable with their badge number being reported, and claims that they are not protecting and serving the public, sure (which is to say, probably not).


And if a retailer is found guilty, they’re gone for a Previews cycle. From the law: “A person who violates subsection (1) is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 93 days or a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both.”


By increasing the workload for retailers (reading through every comic that ships in a week and trying to read the collective mind of the Michigan legislature and blocking out those that do), and keeping the definition of the statute broad, the new law will have it’s second desired effect (the first being the punishment of those violating it) – making it too risky of a gamble to carry anything that falls under the law or might fall under the law. After all, while a retailer may be exonerated in the end, a trial would have two costs – financial and reputation.


When asked about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s involvement in the opposition to the law, Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Fund told Newsarama: “The Michigan law follows the growing national trend of laws that seek to restrict access to materials clearly allowed by the Constitution. The Fund has been following this law since it was in committee, and since its passage, it has become an object of discussion at a legal meeting we’re attending this week. We should have more information about the CBLDF’s response to this law shortly.”


Other sources tracking legislation such as that seen in Michigan and Arkansas cite four or five other states where such “display” laws are in committees and creeping closer to becoming law. Traditionally, such laws with noble causes (“save the children”) at their heart, but wording broad enough that anything could be prosecuted are part of a category of laws that pass the year before an election, allowing the very public fights to be tried in the year of the election. That is, a prosecutor in Michigan up for reelection in 2004 could, conceivably, see that a comic shop is busted (it’s unlikely that a state government employee would go after a large tax-generator such as Border’s or Barnes and Noble), and wage a very public legal battle, ever pushing how they are doing it for the children (Michigan’s current governor did much the same thing during her election, as she was the former Attorney General). Every parent wants their child safe, and if Mr. X, esq, is protecting the children, then they’ll vote for him.


It is expected that either the ACLU or the Media Coalition will mount the legal challenge to the law prior to it going into effect, challenging its Constitutionality.

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