Sunday, September 19, 2010

Déjà Vu All Over Again.

Panel from "The First Amendment: It's Why We Fight!"

This post is about something I care very much about and I'm very proud to be affiliated with.
It's the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The press release is here.

You can read the brief in its entirety here.

The First Amendment is an elegant bit of prose written a long, long time ago by folks who couldn't possibly imagined the world that we find ourselves living in today.
(see illo above).

Sure the language comes across as a bit quaint but the message is concise:
The Government can't pass laws dictating what an individual can speak or publish. In the United States of America freedom of speech isn't a privilege--it's a right guaranteed by the constitution.

No one is allowed to tell us what we can say or or think.
Not ever.

Of course, that has never stopped people from trying to do otherwise now and again.
That's why the First Amendment, in its tightly written simplicity, is such a valuable part of the Constitution.

Today, I'm here to tell you about how Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is pitching in and as a friend-of-the-court has filed an amicus curiae brief in a case that is soon going to be heard before the Supreme Court of the United States.

That case is called Schwarzenegger v. EMA.

The law that was passed by the state of California and signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger bans the sale or rental of any video game containing violent content to minors, and requiring manufacturers to label such games.

The Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) believes that this law is unconstitutional and has spearheaded the appeal to have the law reversed.

CBLDF thinks so too.
The Board of the Fund (in all fairness I will remind you that I'm its current President) states that if allowed to stand "California’s law would reverse fundamental First Amendment principles by creating a new category of unprotected speech, diminishing the First Amendment rights of minors, and reducing First Amendment protection for new media."

Think about that.
A state legislature gets to create a whole new category of speech that it's decided isn't eligible for protection under the First Amendment and by doing so claims the right to chip away at the free speech rights of people working in a new media as they come along, y'know, like video games.

"The CBLDF argues that the law under review is the most recent example of government improperly attempting to regulate content by using junk science, and calls upon a history of moral panics against media that includes the 1950s crusades against comics that crippled the industry and harmed the art form. The CBLDF asks the Supreme Court to deny California this attempt to roll back protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, as it and other courts have correctly done in the past."

Well, this hits close to home for those of us that love comic books and are painfully aware of what happened almost six decades ago when we were the targets of a similar moral panic. Junk science was provided "indisputable proof "that comic books were harmful to the moral health of America's impressionable Baby Boomers. It was loudly argued in public and private that comic books were a malignant force undermining the very foundations of civilized society in the post war period.

The Business-of-our-Art-Form, as I like to think of the comic book industry, was severely damaged in the 1950s.
Lives were ruined.
Careers destroyed.

The appendix in a history of the era, The Ten-Cent Plague, lists the names of about 1.000 industry professionals who never worked in the medium again. In the prologue of the book, one Quality Comics studio artist, Janice Valleau, when asked why she never worked in the comic book industry again repled: "My God. I couldn't go back out there--I was scared to death. Don't you know what they did to us?"

Comic book creators and publishers were demonized. Junk science was pushed forward in books and in Senate hearings to "prove" that the negative influence of comic books was a primary motivator and root cause of post-war juvenile delinquency.

I oughta know.
I'm one of those kids they were talking about.
I started going to school in 1956 in the direct aftermath of the horrors that destroyed the comic book industry of the 1950s.

It's a story I tell often enough but in 3rd grade, circa, 1959-60, I drew a picture of Batman in crayons at school. This so alarmed my teacher that my parents were called and told that I was well on the road to ruination because I was obsessed with comic books. My mother was horrified , of course, and it wasn't until I was an upperclassman in high school that comics were once again allowed in our home.

Dime novels, early cinema, Jazz, radio, pulp magazines, comic books, Rock & Roll, and now video games all have been accused in one or another of undermining the status quo in a harmful way. When comics were attacked in the 1950s, our industry didn't seem to have any friends.
The targets of moral panics rarely do.

That's why I believe it is so important for everyone who loves the inter-meshing worlds of comics, games, TV, and film to understand just how important it is to defend our First Amendment liberties when they are being attacked or violated.

Don't just take my word for it, listen to someone who lived through it before: Stan Lee who posted on this subject.

"Comic books, it was said, contributed to 'juvenile delinquency.' A Senate subcommittee investigated and decided the U.S. could not 'afford the calculated risk involved in feeding its children, through comic books, a concentrated diet of crime, horror and violence.'

The more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same. Substitute video games for comic books and you've got a 21st century replay of the craziness of the 1950s. States have passed laws restricting the sale of video games and later this year, the Supreme Court will hear a case about one of those laws, this one passed in California. Why does this matter? Because if you restrict sales of video games, you're chipping away at our First Amendment rights to free speech and opening the door to restrictions on books and movies."

That's why so many other organizations are filing amicus briefs in support of EMA. In the past, the CBLDF would often be a co-signer on other amicus briefs. This time, we as a Board, after careful consideration, we concluded that this one hits too close to home. Our collective past experience brings too much to the table.

We've been there.
We've done that.
We want the Supreme Court hear about our history and consider our experiences.
It's our duty as people who are protected by the First Amendment to make sure that everyone else is too.

Because like I said before: the First Amendment isn't a privildege-it's a right.
It can't be taken away.

Or as Jeremy Bentham (the real guy-not the one on LOST) said:
As to the evil which results from a censorship, it is impossible to measure it, for it is impossible to tell where it ends.


Protecting the First Amendment isn't cheap.

CBLDF is a grassroots organization that exists because of the generous support of the comics community.
The donations of individuals and small businesses add up to make CBLDF the first responder to First Amendment emergencies when they arise.

Please support the CBLDF’s work by making a
monetary contribution and by following us and spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook.


Vinnie Bartilucci said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

How does what California has enshrined differ from film certification?

Allen Montgomery said...

Did the MPAA's ratings system gut the movie industry? Is it "censorship?" That's all the CA law is, applying movie ratings and standards to video games, which are interactive movies. Parents don't have the time to pre-screen everything, and a ratings system of some sort is helpful.

The First Amendment prohibits legislation against freedom of speech. It doesn't guarantee anyone the right to peddle crap to kids, against parents' wishes.

I love your comics work with all my heart, Larry, but I think you're wrong here.

Brian Jacoby from Secret Headquarters in Tallahassee Florida said...

The MPAA is NOT a legal authority.

It is a voluntary organization, and movie theaters *CHOOSE* to follow the recommendations regarding who they allow into a film.

The video game industry already has its own voluntary ratings system.

Larry Marder said...

I understand your concern, Allen, but Brian nailed it. I'll try to fill in a bit more.

MPAA ratings and the Comic Book Code Authority are voluntary trade associations that exist to provide ratings as purchasing guides for vendors and consumers.

The key notion here is "voluntary."

The movie ratings are not laws and they are not enforceable by the police.

If a 16 year old is found in a R-rated movie no laws have been broken.

The police will not come and arrest the owner of the movie theater and the employee who sold the ticket.

The District Attorney will not press charges against all of the above.

The courts will not be tied up with a case like this.

That's because the NCAA rating system is voluntary.

Similarly, the video industry also has a voluntary rating system. It's worked for many years.

A concerned parent can find out what a questionable game's rating is with just a few clicks.

The California legislature has taken it on itself that turn the voluntary ratings suggestions into enforceable law.

This is something new.
These aren't voluntary ratings.
This is a new law.

And I believe this new law is unconstitutional.

Allen Montgomery said...

A law that seeks to limit the dissemination of improper materials to minors is something new? I don't believe so. I'm sure you remember the flap over the Nick Bertozzi naked Picasso Free Comic Book Day comic.

I'm trying to get my head around what exactly it is you want to see protected here. It's not Freedom of Speech. Video game publishers can put whatever they want on the market, and then later modify those products into even more graphic versions with patches (thereby side-stepping the ESRB rating on the box). There are no limits on that.

What you seem to want to protect is the freedom to sell any product to any demographic through any means. What were your thoughts on Joe Camel, Larry?

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