The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Doesn’t Understand Free Speech

I attended the 2021 New York ComicCon at the Javits Center this past weekend. It was far smaller than usual, both in terms of the number of booths and attendees, as well as the quality of celebrity cameos and panels. But I was thankful to be able to attend my perennial panel, one which I’ve been present at nearly every year since I started attending the New York convention a few years back, and even before that when I was going to the Baltimore ComicCon – that being the one hosted by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Their raison d’etre is first and foremost to provide pro bono legal support to comic book creators, sellers, owners, and others within medium’s sphere from those who would violate their Right to Free Speech. It is a cause near and dear to my heart, combining my love for sequential art and my passion for freedom of expression. I’ve been a vocal proponent of theirs ever since learning of their existence, an on-and-off card carrying member, and they’ve been my sole charity of choice ever since I had the extra income with which to be charitable. 

Well no more. 

This year’s panel held the rather bromide and unassuming title “Defending Comics Today: Contemporary Comics Censorship.” This would have been equally fitting for any of their past panels, but almost immediately the tenor had changed significantly compared to its antecedents. Time and again the verbage and nomenclature of host and interim director Jeff Trexler and the other panelists painted a picture of themselves and everyone at the convention as ideological fellow travellers persecuted by censorious conservative authoritarians. Even their explicit affirmation of non-partisanship evidenced an implicit partisan bent. Trexler doth protest too much, saying that the CBLDF defends against illiberalism from the Left and the Right, but immediately qualified his statement by stating that the current threat came primarily from the latter, as he assumed all those in the room surely felt. Given the Left’s current holdings of the Executive and both houses of the Legislature, as well as their permanent sinistocracy over Academia, Big Tech, the Corporations, Entertainment, and News Media, I was understandably perplexed as to why those with all of the political power and cultural capital seemed to genuinely feel embattled. 

Then the discussion turned towards Critical Race Theory, and the nature of their grievance crystalized. Without defining the term, panelist and Heavy Metal executive editor Joseph Illidge expressly denied the demonstrable fact that Critical Race Theory is being taught in public elementary and high schools. My guess is that this was a semantic sleight, speaking only to Critical Race Theory as it originated in the law schools, slyly ignoring the common usage in which the acronym refers to the racialized lens in which the old Marxist paradigm of the oppressed proletariat and their bourgeoisie oppressors is replaced with ethnic divisions instead of class. Such an ideological framework is pervasive in public school curricula. That there is some identifiable set of ideas targeted by “Anti-CRT legislation” seems to give lie to Illidge’s claim that CRT isn’t being taught. Nevertheless, he and all the panelists were vociferous in their crusade to protect teachers and school boards from the “censoring” of Critical Race Theory by conservatives. 

During the portion of the panel appointed for questions, I asked: “Does the legislation with regard to Critical Race Theory prohibit such materials from school libraries as well, or is the legislation narrowly targeted to just curricula? Furthermore, what is the guiding philosophy of the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund with respect to Free Speech and curricula? Should public elementary and high school teachers be given broad leeway to shape a curriculum as each sees fit, or should curricula come under the control of parents, taxpayers, and voters?” 

In response to the first part of my question, a panelist stated that each state had different wording to their legislation, though many bills seemed to derive “cookie-cutter” from common sources (such as conservative think tanks). I asked because the nature of the legislation changes the legitimacy of the grievance. It’s not acceptable for government actors such as Boards of Education or school administrators to declare any works verboten. Public school libraries should include important but terrible writings such as Marx’s Das Kapital and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. These are primary resources that students might legitimately need access to in the course of their academic pursuits. That their ideas are dangerous doesn’t abridge students’ right to engage with those ideas. But that is a different beast altogether than including them in a curriculum, in which case the teacher as a public servant and government actor must invariably take on a much more active role. While it may be appropriate to teach the works in a purely descriptive manner, it would at all times and in all places be inappropriate to teach them in a prescriptive manner. All Americans have a vested interest in their government not foisting communism or fascism onto succeeding generations. 

It was the response to the second part of my question that truly surprised me. While affirming that individual parents have a right to some oversight of their own children’s education, the panelist stated that they had no right to oversee any other children’s education. Those without children were said not to be stakeholders at all with regards to public education, seemingly a specific exclusion of the citizens, taxpayers, and voters whose interests I inquired after. Instead, the panelist argued that the expertise of educators should be broadly deferred to, that their pedagogical studies had privileged them to shape the standards unimpeded by parents or anyone else. 

What immediately struck me in the moment was the rank technocratic impulse, of a similar spirit to the veneration of so-called “public health experts” over the past year and a half. And just as the latter were given deference on decisions impacting areas far outside the scope of their expertise, such as economics and individual liberties, so too would empowering educators to unilaterally write curricula be well outside their wheelhouse. They may be equipped to decide how to teach most effectively, but that gives them no special insight as to what to teach, especially when it comes not to plain and unassailable facts, but rather values and ideas. A bachelors’ degree from some state school does not make a kindergarten teacher a parent’s moral better. 

Upon further reflection, however, I found a far more fundamental problem with the CBLDF’s stated position. Our God-given and inalienable Right to Free Speech – as recognized by and enshrined in the First Amendment – is, in part, a freedom of individuals from government censorship. But neither the enumerated Right nor the universal principle on which it’s founded suggests a freedom of the government from censorship by its citizens. In innumerable cases government actors in their capacity as such are rightly prohibited from making certain statements. An officer in the military may not give a command countervening those of his superiors – who are ultimately subject to civilian oversight. An ambassador may not treat with forgien leaders in a manner contrary to the diplomatic goals and strategy of the State Department and the President at whose pleasure it serves. Intelligence agents are prohibited from sharing the state secrets to which they are privy. Government officials under oath may not purger themselves. 

It is along those same principles that the speech of those government officials known as public school teachers should be subject to the civilian oversight of taxpayers and voters. A public elementary classroom is not a soapbox for teachers to stand upon and spout their private beliefs; they may not say “convert to my religion” or “vote for my political party.” A public high school classroom is not even a college seminar where in the interest of Academic Freedom and the pursuit of Truth for its own sake professors may submit their theses to be inspected and dissected and perfected. A public school classroom is a place for making capable citizens, and as such, all citizens have a stake in how that’s handled, not just an unelected “elite” of educational “experts.” 

That the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund cannot see the difference between civilian oversight of the classroom and genuine government censorship disqualifies them from being able and effective defenders of the First Amendment in the comics medium. Effective immediately I am ending all charitable contributions to them, and will not be renewing my membership when it expires. I encourage all of you to do the same.

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