"We’re first responders,” said Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), an organization devoted to protecting the First Amendment rights of comics artists, publishers, retailers, librarians, and fans. “We continue to respond immediately to crises. But we’re adding education programs and other tools to prevent these kinds of threats before they can grow.” When he says “threats,” Brownstein means what he views as the unlawful seizure of comics by law enforcement officials or custom agents, as well as efforts to remove comics from libraries or to intimidate comics retailers. “Just because law enforcement doesn’t understand a comic doesn’t mean it’s illegal,” Brownstein said.

The CBLDF was launched in the mid-1980s after a sales clerk at Friendly Frank’s, a comic book retailer in Illinois, was convicted on obscenity charges (and sentenced to a year in jail) for selling a number of indie comics, including several by Kitchen Sink Press. Feeling responsible, legendary KSP publisher Denis Kitchen rallied artists and publishers to raise $10,000 to defend the retailer, whose conviction was eventually overturned. The money left over was eventually used to found the CBLDF.

Today the organization is based in Manhattan and carries out its programs on an annual budget of $500,000, which supports a staff of three full-timers employees and several part-timers. While Brownstein oversees day to day operations, cartoonist Larry Marder is president of the board, ICv2.com CEO Milton Griepp is vice president, and Jeff Abraham, president of Random House Publishers Services, is CBLDF treasurer.

Funds for CBLDF are raised through membership programs for individuals, retailers, and corporations, as well as a publishing program, which releases books, prints, and periodicals that are signed by some of the most famous comics artists in the world (among them Neil Gaiman, Jim Lee, Gene Yang, Amanda Conner, and Paul Pope). CBLDF also raises money from the Liberty Annual, a periodical comics anthology with work by top comics artists, which has sold about 60,000 copies over six editions since it debuted in 2008.

While CBLDF is best known for quickly providing lawyers or legal advice to anyone under legal threat over access to comics, during the past year CBLDF, in conjunction with the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the National Coalition Against Censorship, has been working to set up “preventative programs.” It has also been releasing publications designed to provide tools to protect First Amendment rights. One initiative is the Kids Right to Read program, which has released Raising a Reader: How Comics & Graphics Novels Can Help Your Kids Love to Read, a publication for parents and teachers, produced by educational specialist Meryl Jaffe and Jennifer L. Holm, co-creator of the Eisner Award–winning Baby Mouse graphic novels. CBLDF has more than 25,000 copies of the pamphlet in print.

The fund spent $75,000 and two years successfully defending Ryan Matheson, who was wrongly charged in 2010 with importing child pornography into Canada after legal manga was found on his laptop at the border. After that success, CBLDF teamed with Dark Horse Comics to publish (in a 3,500-copy paperback edition) Manga: Introduction, Challenges and Best Practices, which offers detailed information to librarians on the history and subcategories of manga, how to read it, and the legal issues around it. And thanks to a $60,000 grant from the Neil Gaiman Foundation, CBLDF helped produce a short documentary on the Matheson case called Defending Manga: The Ryan Matheson Story.

Other outreach includes Help the CBLDF Defend Comics, an informational minicomic that recaps the organization’s mission and accomplishments; “Using Graphic Novels in Education,” a regular column by Jaffe on the CBLDF Web site; an online archive of studies documenting the case law around CBLDF-sponsored legal defenses; and presentations during Banned Books Week. The fund’s site has also launched a new column, “Understanding Your Rights,” a series of FAQs on obscenity. “We’re building a library of blogs on obscenity case files for use by readers or law students,” Brownstein said.

CBLDF exhibits at 25 to 30 comics conventions and trade shows every year, in addition to holding workshops and presentations on First Amendment rights throughout the country and around the world. Brownstein was invited to Tokyo in August to attend Comiket, a mammoth twice-a-year, three-day comics convention that draws as many 250,000 manga fans each day, to give a speech on the censorship of manga and the Matheson case. “We want to create a dialogue between fans in Japan and the U.S. about the value of manga as free speech,” he said.

Brownstein noted that fundraising is on target for 2013. “We’re not treading water, we’re swimming, but it’s choppy waters. We work hard to help protect the First Amendment rights of real people, and those same individuals provide the funds that help us make a difference.”