Nick Kazden writes:
Back in April, I covered the CBLDF Censorship panel at Wonder Con, and it doesn't seem like things have improved much since then. Executive Director Charles Brownstein and Editorial Director Betsy Gomez gave a presentation that highlighted the state of censorship in 2017 and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's efforts to defend the people's right to read and publish comics.
The first incident the team discussed was the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, calling it an important moment in the new era of censorship. Since the attacks, new regulations about how people present and talk about Islam have taken hold in France.
The first half of the presentation focused on international incidents such as the case of Musa Kart in Turkey or the cartoonist Zunar in Malaysia. Kart, a journalist, was arrested with eight of his colleagues at the Cumhuriyet newspaper in November of 2016 but has yet to receive a court date. Zunar, on the other hand, has his next court date in September, but is still not allowed to leave the country and has only received a small amount of compensation for the books the government seized from him. According to Gomez, Zunar is being charged with a sedition act that actually predates the Malaysian constitution and he has been trying to overcome this legal loophole in the courts.
"Cases happening in places like Turkey, Indonesia, Iraq and elsewhere may not affect us here on our shores but remind us why the first amendment exists and why we must so zealously defend our rights."
Gomez spoke about the CBLDF's condemnation of a Department of Homeland Security proposal that would require non-citizens to provide border officials their social media passwords. While this directly impacts people who are not citizens, Gomez said American citizens still have something to fear from the decision:
"This posts risks to American citizens because a lot of these people are probably friends with Americans and text or exchange e-mails with them. […] It runs the risk of international governments doing the same thing to Americans and it has the potential to balloon into a huge illegal search issue."
Complications at the border was a big topic of conversation. The CBLDF has joined more than 30 cultural institutions in speaking out against the immigration ban. With U.S. President Donald Trump's temporary travel ban causing increased trouble at the border, cartoonists from those seven designated countries are at an increased risk. While every country on the list faces risk, there seem to be more Iranian cartoonists at risk than anything else. Gomez said:
"Even more popular artists like Marjane Satrapi, who has French and Iranian citizenship, could face pushback because that Iranian citizenship."
Countries that aren't directly listed on the ban are still impacted. Mem Fox, an Australian children's author who, according to Gomez, is "as white as you can be," was stopped at the border. Tom Taylor, known for the Injustice comics and All-New Wolverine, has decided to not travel to the U.S. for events.
Brownstein described the laws as "overly broad to block people from exchanging ideas."
After border issues were discussed, Gomez and Brownstein spoke about specific comics that were banned in the US. Successful books like Bone, Saga and Sex Criminals have been banned across the country for various reasons.
Even smaller books like Drama, a graphic novel about a middle school play, was removed from Texas middle schools. The book was charged with being sexually explicit, even though Gomez said "the most sexual thing that happens in the book is two boys share a kiss, and it's even in the context of the play where he had to fill in the role for a girl."
Brownstein said he remembers his childhood when his favorite music genre — heavy metal — was considered bad and would turn kids evil.
"Heavy Metal turned me into someone who defends freedom of speech, which is almost worse," he joked.
Legislative efforts to institute what Brownstein described as certain points of view serve as a danger to increased censorship. One such law that has been working its way though the state legislature is known as the "Beloved Bill." After a high school student was assigned Toni Morrison's Beloved, his mother bi-passed the traditional path to censorship that includes oral/written complaints and public attacks in favor of going straight to the legislature. The bill, which made it all the way though the legislature and was vetoed by the Governor twice, is still floating around somewhere. Gomez said the bill's vagueness could have led to parents being notified for students reading anything from the bible to Shakespeare in class.
Brownstein said this is part of a "larger trend of parental notification bills beginning to arise" with intentionally vague language. His fear is that it will ultimately cause teachers to choose safer books over time because they "won't want to put themselves at risk if there is an obligation to notify parents."
The CBLDF has a lot of educational resources you can look into if you are interested in fighting censorship. In addition to their quarterly magazines, they have a free expression hand book prepared by the Kirkland and Ellis firm for creators debuting in the fall. The fall will also see the CBLDF drop their Panel Power series, something Gomez described as "a useful tool to help parents and librarians understand how comics can be essential." Not only will Panel Power be available in both US and UK English, but it is also CBLDF's first informational guide that will be available in Spanish.
If you want to help, Brownstein has a couple of suggestions:
"You can help by knowing what's happening in your community, reporting censorship to the CBLDF and supporting your local librarians."