Jeff Trexler, lawyer and interim director of the advocacy group Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, has been on the front lines of the legal battles over challenges and censorship. He represented Gender Queer creator Maia Kobabe in Virginia, where a petitioner tried to have the book banned from sale on the grounds that it was obscene; instead, the judge declared the statute unconstitutional. Trexler has also written briefs in high-profile cases in Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas, and he works with individual libraries and comics retailers to forestall or address challenges. PW spoke with him about what CBLDF has been up against this past year—and why comics and graphic novels are so often targeted in challenges against libraries.

What sort of new developments are you seeing?

Probably the most important thing rhetorically is that the people challenging the books now regularly start their challenges by saying that they are not banning books. They say you can still find the books in retail stores, or if they challenge it in a school library, you can still find it in a public library.

Why does that matter?

There are courts that have found this argument persuasive, and the whole case can be swallowed up by the judge feeling that the rhetoric of book banning is not really appropriate, and that has ripple effects for how the judge sees the rest of the case. The most extreme effect of this is that there’s at least one instance, and threats elsewhere, where insistence on calling people book banners has led to a defamation lawsuit.

How do you counter that?

One way is to talk about the impact of these challenges beyond the specific books. The challenges are leading schools to try to avoid any sort of trouble, such as school board members who are nervous about getting reelected, or principals or superintendents who are nervous about being fired. So it does have a ripple effect in terms of what books teachers, administrators, school boards are willing to tolerate. Even though the people challenging the book are saying, “No, no, no, we’re not calling for a ban on this book,” the book gets stigma attached to it, and books with similar themes get stigma attached to them.

How is this a problem for comics and graphic novels specifically?

One of the things that concerns me is there are school districts where the administration sees graphic novels or manga as a whole as the cause of the problem, whether it’s because they think “graphic” novel refers to sex or because they see this problem happening again and again, and the most prominent examples are graphic novels. They see Gender Queer or Let’s Talk About It or Flamer, and they go, “We just can’t keep dealing with this.” Then, some parents might say, “Why are kids going to school reading comic books instead of real literature?” So the school districts are going well, you know what, let’s just get rid of graphic novels altogether.

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