Saturday, November 26, 2005

Legally Funky

If you're like me, you have my sympathies. You've also been following the storyline that's been running in the daily comic strip Funky Winkerbean for the last few weeks. John, owner of the local comic store (a staple of the strip; Les and Lisa were married in the building, and Crazy and John are both humorous-but-well-rounded portrayals of comics readers), is being run up on obscenity charges, basically for carrying adult comics in the store, and selling them to adults.

The trial and the case are based on the real-life case of Jesus Castillo. Comics expert and scholar Scott McCloud (whose site you can, and should, visit from the blogroll) testified in the Castillo case; John Byrne appeared in a series of strips last week that mirrored McCloud's expert testimony. (Byrne is a longtime friend of FB creator Tom Batiuk, and inked the strip for a while a few years ago.) The line "we all know comics are for kids," used several times by the prosecutor in the strip, is a verbatim quote from the real-life prosecutor's closing statement. And, like in the real-life case, the woman who got John busted in the first place has an ulterior motive for doing so: he used to date her daughter (who's now married to Funky's cousin Wally), and she never liked him. In the real-life case, the woman who tipped the police was angry over the high prices the store charged for Pokemon cards.

It's also interesting that the actual charges in both cases result from the store selling adult comics to an undercover police officer, or, to put it more bluntly, to an adult. No actual crime took place (both shops keep the adult comics well away from the regular comics, in a clearly-marked area where minors are not allowed), but they're building a case out of it nonetheless. This is essentially a scare tactic, state-sponsored bullying. Ideally, they want to make any store owner afraid to sell
adult comics at all, knowing that any one of their customers could be a plant.

So what's all the fuss over some nudie comics, you might be asking? Is smut really worth defending?

Yes. Yes it is. Not because it's smut, but because it's expression. One of the most precious elements of our society is the freedom of expression, for people to be able make the kind of art they want to make, and for the people who want that kind of art to be able to buy it. This includes art that I, or you, or someone else, may find utterly reprehensible. Everyone deserves to be heard. If you don't like it, it deserves a fair shake.

Anyone can defend speech they agree with. The real test of how far you're willing to go against censorship is to be able to defend something that makes you sick to your stomach, not on its merits, but on its right to exist and be heard. We cannot have the Great Conversation that is so necessary to the health of a free society if we are shackled in what ideas we are allowed to even consider. Once upon a time, every idea we hold dear today was unpopular. But we judged them not on their popularity, but on their merits. Censorship has no place in any civilized society, and back-pew moral legislators and opportunistic DAs who pick on small business owners to secure their re-elections on the "family values" ticket have no place in our justice system.

The storyline is just about wrapped up. I don't know how Batiuk is going to end it; will John be exonerated, or will the fictional jury mimic the real one, and put prejudice masked as common sense over the facts of the case and the law of the land? Whichever happens, this story is a cautionary tale no one who's ever had an unpopular idea can afford to ignore.

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