“How Do We Cope with Something Like That?”: SPX and the CBLDF Confront Defamation Lawsuit Aimed at The 11

On Monday, August 27 Warren Bernard, executive director of the Small Press Expo, emailed a receipt to 11 different inboxes. A retainer of $4,750 was paid to the New York law firm C.A. Goldberg, PLLC — the same firm that represented actress Paz de la Huerta in 2017 after she accused Harvey Weinstein of rape. He wanted the recipients to know. The responses arrived soon after. They conveyed relief and thanks. It had been understood this assistance was coming, yet it was a different thing when it actually arrived. The receipt meant the matter was no longer insurmountable.

The retainer was the first expense made from a $20,000 special fund created and administered by SPX with consultation from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The aim of it is to help 11 members of the comic book community mount a legal reply to a $2.5 million defamation lawsuit filed in early August by small-press comics publisher Cody Pickrodt. In October 2017, he was accused of rape, sexual harassment, anti-Semitic remarks, and withholding royalty payments by cartoonists Whit Taylor, Laura Knetzger, Emma Louthan and Emi Gennis. Their stories were shared online via a Google Document, and the remaining defendants - cartoonists Ben Passmore, Hazel Newlevant, Tom Kaczynski, Jordan Shiveley, and Morgan Pielli; publisher Josh O’Neill; and comics critic Rob Clough - used social media to voice support for those coming forward and to denounce Pickrodt. Kaczynski’s business, Uncivilized Books, is also listed in Pickrodt’s complaint.

“This is just so big and so vast and so extraordinary and impacting so many people we all know that we couldn’t not do anything,” Bernard says. “Rob Clough is on our executive committee; Hazel Newlevant is an Ignatz winner; Josh O’Neill is doing some tremendous stuff; and Tom Kaczynski is a longtime SPX’er. All of them are from our community. If these people don’t get help there’s a good chance of bankruptcy. We don’t want to see [that].”

The fund is the first of its kind for SPX. It represents a collaboration by two organizations that are not designed to handle a defamation suit, yet found room to maneuver within their respective articles of incorporation. For SPX, they believe it’s a case of supporting the comic book community through a philanthropic endeavor “as the corporation’s board, directors and officers may reasonably determine within the scope of their respective authority.” According to the CBLDF, it’s an exercise in referrals and offering general advice, while bowing out from assuming a more direct role in this situation, so as not to forego, complicate, or risk its stated mission of protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics artform. The organization says it supported and encouraged SPX’s decision to redirect an annual donation of $10,000 to the fund which is usually given to the CBLDF.

Additional fundraising commenced yesterday, prior to this weekend’s annual expo in North Bethesda, Maryland via the online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. SPX is overseeing this effort on behalf of the 11 defendants. The GoFundMe states a fundraising goal of $120,000, but Bernard did not estimate the total costs to ultimately be covered by this fund. He simply says SPX views this effort as a longterm commitment.

Aurore DeCarlo, a managing senior associate with C.A. Goldberg, said her firm could not make any comment on the case. She said, though, her clients were grateful for the outpouring of support, echoing the statement made by the defendants in SPX’s initial press release. Joe Carbonaro, of Carbonaro Law in New York City, who is representing Pickrodt, acknowledged requests for comment about the fund but did not offer one by press time. Bernard says that he has not been in touch with Pickrodt or his attorney.

According to Bernard, the fund will remain in an isolated bank account, and on paper it will reside separate from SPX’s general ledger. He says it will account for all legal and court fees related to the matter, as well as travel expenses for depositions and hearings. Christina Merkler, the new president of the CBLDF, would not offer specific details of how her organization is consulting with SPX, but she said that the CBLDF possesses 32 years of experience with litigation and fundraising, as well as a wide range of legal contacts. She also said that the organization’s legal team and board have determined it cannot contribute financially to the defendants, aside from supporting SPX’s rerouted donation.

Prior to the August 30 announcement of this combined effort, both organizations received social media input from cartoonists, publishers, critics, and readers asking that they aid the 11 defendants. Some called for SPX to reconsider its longstanding relationship with the CBLDF, the object of a majority of this frustration due to its perceived arm's-length approach to the matter. According to Merkler, the CBLDF's charter prevents them from being directly involved.

"When a situation arises that isn’t a First Amendment Rights issue, it isn't possible or appropriate for us to take a leading role in the case because it falls outside of our charter," Merkler says, "but we can be a resource to provide referrals and general advice."

Some have argued that the scenario is compelling enough to mandate amending the organization’s charter to include cases beyond its selected scope.

“I was very aware of the passionate response from the comics community on social media,” Merkler says. “From the time we became aware of this case, we were talking both to the defendants and to SPX to determine the best way we could put our heads together to help the folks who needed help. There are always limitations to what we can say, as an organization, to address legal situations, especially as they’re developing. One of our priorities going forward is to better communicate what the CBLDF does. We can do better at communicating about the work that we do — and we will.”

She says at this point the consulting relationship with SPX represents the extent of the CBLDF’s involvement in this case. She says First Amendment rights of the comics medium are the core of her organization’s cause and this won’t change.

“How we do that, and what we can do to help the community where it needs help, does evolve," Merkler adds, "and this matter will inform how we think about that.”

Bernard addressed the discussion brought by social media as an individual, not on behalf of SPX. "I'm going to be very clear about this: that whole Twitter thing made our lives a lot harder," Bernard says.

"It did not motivate us," Bernard says. “We were already motivated. We were doing it before half these Tweets came out. ... The expectation that within 24 hours these organizations should leap to a response shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how they work and the responsibilities they have to their donor base. And to the legal process. And to the privacy of the people who we’re trying to help.

"Any way you cut it, we moved as fast as we fucking could."

Within six days of the news of the lawsuit, the retainer for C.A. Goldberg was paid. Bernard describes a 50/50 effort by himself and CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein, in which they co-developed the effort and were granted approval by their respective boards of directors. He says the pair were in touch multiple times a day, and also took part in intensive internal discussions. Brownstein, though, emerged as another impetus for criticism aimed at the CBLDF through social media.

In 2005, the executive director allegedly sexually harassed a young woman at the Mid-Ohio Comic Con. The CBLDF became aware of the incident, and hired an independent investigator to make an assessment. The board took “appropriate punitive and rehabilitative actions,” according to Merkler, and she says no further incidents have occurred since that time. She indicated no plans of addressing the situation further, and she did not detail what those punitive and rehabilitative actions had been.

Neil Gaiman, who was a member of the CBLDF’s board at that time, tweeted he was aware of this incident, and he called the disciplinary actions “severe.”

According to a 2006 Comics Journal report, an attorney was brought in to question several women beyond Brownstein’s accuser about possible repeated behavior. The board released a public statement claiming that they had conducted a thorough and independent investigation. At that time, the board concluded that whatever happened between Brownstein and his accuser was unlikely to reoccur.

Brownstein says that he won’t make excuses for himself.

“I did something bad when I was young,” he says. “I hurt someone who was a friend, and I let a lot of people down. I still regret it and always will. I accepted the punishment and disciplinary processes the board required, and more importantly, I learned from them. I made a lot of personal changes. I work continually to keep learning, to conduct myself well, and to be of service to others. People change. They learn from their mistakes. I try to be one of them every day.”

Bernard says SPX will utilize its annual expo to publicize the fundraising initiative for the 11 defendants, but he wants to make one thing clear. This, for now, is a special circumstance. He expects it to be the sole pursuit of this type that SPX approaches. He says there’s inherent risk for both the CBLDF and his organization to get within any distance of this, but he doesn’t really see a choice.

“We totally understand establishing the precedent, but we also want to communicate that we’re not in this business,” Bernard says. “We do not want to get into the business that for every suit that comes between two parties in the indie comics community — defamation, libel, whatever it may be — people come to our door.

“[But] Eden Miller, of our board, said it best,” he says. “She said this is an extraordinary circumstance in that something was broken that we didn’t know could break. How do we cope with something like that?”

In interest of full disclosure, Alec Berry is a former employee of Uncivilized Books. The defendants Taylor, Kaczynski, and Clough have contributed writing to this website.