On February 1, 1996, a jury in Whatcom County Superior Court finds two defendants -- Bellingham newsstand owner Ira Stohl and store manager Kristina Hjelsand -- not guilty of obscenity charges. Stohl and Hjelsand had been charged with promoting pornography by selling the rape-focused 1994 issue of ANSWER ME!, an alternative "zine" published by a couple in Portland, Oregon. Exonerated following a 10-day trial, Stohl and Hjelsand will sue Whatcom County and receive a $720,000 judgment, and ANSWER ME! will cease publication. This account of the legal proceedings was written by Doug Honig, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington from 1990 to 2018.
"One of the Most Offensive Things"
ANSWER ME! was an annual alterative literary magazine – a zine – published from 1991-1994 by Portland, Oregon residents Jim and Debbie Goad. Issues covered social pathologies such as racism, murder, and suicide, and featured notables such as Timothy Leary, Public Enemy, Al Sharpton, and David Duke. Rants by the Goads were staples. One reviewer wrote that ANSWER ME! was "... hilarious, fascinating, exciting, and one of the most offensive things ever written in the English language" ("Ben Arzate's ...").
The magazine's 1994 issue pushed the boundaries of decency with its treatment of rape, featuring articles on the torture and molestation of women and children, photos of decapitated crime victims, a revenge fantasy, and a centerfold "Rape Game." The cover illustration showed a waitress with a black eye, a hot dog with mustard spelling out RAPE, and a button reading, "Hi! I asked for it" ("Jim Goad's ANSWER ..."). The Goads would say their intention was to explore the mindset of rapists and show the ugliness of rape. Acknowledging that some would hate the contents, they explained, "Our aim is to amuse, provoke, and maybe jog your lazy-ass mind out of the stupor it's been in" (ANSWER ME! masthead).
Copies of ANSWER ME! were available in downtown Bellingham at the Newsstand International, where owner Ira Stohl and manager Kristina Hjelsand took pride in the establishment's range of newspapers and magazines, with more than 3,000 titles in stock. In early 1995 a Western Washington University student came across the rape issue on the newsstand's shelves. Feeling its content promoted violence against women, she asked Stohl and Hjelsand to stop carrying it. When they refused, she took her concerns to the Whatcom County Crisis Center, an organization helping victims of rape and domestic abuse. Crisis center director Katy Casey then filed a complaint with the Bellingham Police Department.
"It's not just offensive, it's destructive," Casey said of the magazine. "It related a glorified violence to sex. This magazine normalizes something we don't think is normal" ("Question Put Before Court ..."). Hjelsand saw the magazine as scathing political and social satire. "(It) lays down in brutal detail how sick and violent the world is" ("Question Put Before Court ...").
The Newsstand stopped selling ANSWER ME! but kept a copy of the magazine bound in chains and padlock, with a "not for sale" sign. Meanwhile, Whatcom County Prosecutor David McEachern gave Stohl and Hjelsand an ultimatum: Cease carrying the zine and promise to not carry "anything like it" or face prosecution. They refused, maintaining that this demand violated their First Amendment rights. It was unreasonable, they argued, to expect them to screen the contents of all of the store's thousands of publications. Stohl and Hjelsand were then charged with promoting pornography, a felony under state obscenity laws carrying a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Into the Courthouse
The ACLU of Washington defended Stohl and Hjelsand, with cooperating attorney Breean Beggs of Bellingham leading a legal team with assistance from the national ACLU's Arts Censorship Project. Washington law made it illegal to knowingly sell obscene material for profit. How to determine what is legally obscene? The U.S. Supreme Court had outlined a three-part standard in 1973 in Miller v. California: 1) a work which the average person would find appeals to the prurient interest; 2) which depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; 3) and which, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Beggs contended that the magazine did not meet this legal standard; that while it was sexually graphic, it did not titillate or arouse. "I think that the average person that looks at this is turned off and says, 'That's gross'" he said ("Magazine On Rape Draws Fire"). Prosecutor McEachern countered that the rape issue was unacceptable to most of Bellingham's residents. "Look at the publication. It's disgusting," he said ("Question Put Before Court ...").
The controversy attracted widespread interest. Three thousand people signed a petition asking the prosecutor to drop the charges. The ACLU brought its national president Nadine Strossen to Bellingham to speak about the importance of the First Amendment. The New York Times covered the issue under the headline, "Is Magazine Smut or Satire?"
In early 1996, a jury trial on the obscenity charges took place in Whatcom County Superior Court. It lasted 10 days in a courtroom packed with onlookers. Key testimony came from four defense witnesses who said they were rape victims and found reading the zine therapeutic. A psychologist testified that themes it explored were basic to literature and movies.
On February 1, 1996, the jury rendered its verdict: Not guilty. Lead juror Gene Wowk said the prosecution had not proven that Stohl and Hjelsand knowingly sold obscene material, and that for the most part, the jury felt the ANSWER ME! rape issue was not legally obscene. Wowk noted that jury members felt their verdict "did something important for the state of Washington and county of Whatcom ... in defending people's rights" ("Not Guilty Verdict ...").
Stohl and Hjelsand later filed suit against Whatcom County, and in 1997 a district court jury in Seattle awarded them a $1.3 million judgment for violation of their rights. On appeal it was reduced to $720,000.
The Goads produced no more issues of ANSWER ME!, though a collection of its content was published and has been sold on Amazon. The newsstand in Bellingham continued in business until 2008, when a distributor abruptly stopped providing it with publications. Attorney Breean Beggs relocated to Spokane, where he became director of the Center for Justice and then a member of the Spokane City Council.