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We Don't Have the Right to Remain Silent

(This  Stripped column originally appeared in the September 25, 1997 Long Island Voice. Click on the artwork for a larger image.)

by Beth Hannan Rimmels


"If you can take away a person's rights because of the color of their skin, then it can be denied because of the color of their hair or their eyes or the way they worship God. In defending another man's rights, I defend my own!"

— Silas Kent in The Kents #1

I can't believe they caved. If you blissfully read your comics, unaware of the legal implications, I'll bring you up to speed before I rant.

In September 1995, an unidentified Oklahoma City woman saw Verotika #4 at Planet Comics, an average comic book store, and complained to the Christian Coalition (rather than the store owners). She was referred to Oklahomans for Children and Families (OCaF), which took a copy of Verotika to police and demanded that the store be closed for obscenity and child pornography.

Now remember that the Supreme Court, in Miller v. California, defined obscenity as something (A) prurient, (B) patently offensive and (C) lacking in significant scientific, literary, artistic or political value. Getting all three is damn tough and pure opinion. To some, Basic Instinct would qualify, but Debbie Does Dallas would not.

The other problem is the child pornography angle, which was due to a story in Verotika #4 called "The Devil's Angel" that featured a demonic baby. Now I get frothing-at-the-mouth rabid about protecting children, but this charge was absurd, which is why it was dropped. First, to be convicted of kiddie porn, a child had to be used as the model. Oklahoma City authorities never had any evidence that anyone modeled for the characters, let alone children. Second, the demonic baby had only the vaguest resemblance to a human child.

Neil Gaiman donated the character "Smut" (above) to be the CBLDF mascot

Planet Comics was raided, and owners Michael Kennedy and John Hunter were charged with trafficking, selling and displaying obscene material deemed harmful to adults and one count of child pornography. They were evicted. Police then raided Hunter's home and seized more than 250 personal and business computer discs, and the store's computer. The store finally closed and the stress led to the breakup of Kennedy's marriage.

But earlier this month — three days before the case was set to go to trial — Kennedy and Hunter pleaded guilty to all remaining charges, for which they were given a three-year deferred prison sentence and a fine of $1,500 each.

The big problem is that when they decided to plead out, they never consulted the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), which raised money for their case and provided legal counsel. CBDLF is a nonprofit group that assists comic book retailers and creators in First Amendment cases.

I donate time to the fund's newsletter. Why? Because people rarely lose their rights in one giant bite, but rather in tiny little nibbles "for the good of all." I don't like Verotika. I think it's gross and disgusting, but if I label it "obscene," someone could do the same to Preacher or Maus. I understand why Kennedy and Hunter wanted to put this behind them, but I'm cold-in-my-gut terrified at the implications of their guilty plea and how it will strengthen close-minded extremists.

Think I'm overreacting? Just remember a poem written by the Rev. Martin Niemoeller, a German, in 1945. An abridged version goes like this: "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a communist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew...And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up."

Steal of the Month: Pick up a copy of SPX '97, a sampler of independent comics. At 128 pages for just $2.95, it's a steal. Plus, it benefits the CBLDF. The comic ties into the Small Press Expo being held Sept. 19-21 in Silver Spring, Md. It's an easy way to sample comics from Castle Waiting to Too Much Coffee Man.

SPX Signing Tour: Catch Paul Grist, Gary Spenser Millidge, Chris Staros and Shannon Wheeler on Sept. 24 and Jessica Abel, Scott Gilbert and Steve Weissman on Sept. 25. Both signings will be held at St. Mark's Comics, 11 St. Mark's Place, NYC, 212-598-9439.


Column 1997 Long Island Voice. Artwork 1997 CBLDF.