Content Warning: This article contains language that may be triggering or traumatizing to some readers. CW: Pornography, rape and sexual violence.
Twenty-five years ago, Bellingham found itself amidst controversy. Over a quarter of a century after criminal proceedings on charges of promoting pornography and a following civil trial, those involved in the dispute recounted the events that tested the bounds of First Amendment rights.
Ira Stohl and Kristina Hjelsand were prosecuted by Whatcom County on charges of promoting pornography as owner and manager of The Newsstand, then located at 111 E. Magnolia St.
The pornography in question? An issue of an ANSWER Me! zine, created by a Portland, Oregon, couple and written from the perspective of those who commit acts of sexual violence. Only four editions were ever published.
Jim Goad, one of the creators of ANSWER Me!, did not respond to interview requests from The Front. Since self-publishing ANSWER Me! in the ‘90s, Goad has written the “Bible of the Proud Boys” among other books according to a 2017 Willamette Weekly article profiling the author. The same article said that Goad hosts a podcast and writes for various alt-right websites.
Lyle Harris, a now-retired Western Washington University journalism professor, used to teach his students about the ANSWER Me! case as part of his mass media law course.
“[The case] gave students an opportunity to watch or pay attention daily or weekly anyway, on how a jury works, how a person is charged, why they're charged, what the outcome could be,” Harris said. “It was what you look for in teaching sometimes what is the live action happening.”
The two-year series of cases started when Stohl and Hjelsand received a threat of prosecution from the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office over sales of the ANSWER Me! zine’s fourth issue in their store. The zine’s issue focused on the topic of rape, presenting a series of “ironic” essays defending rape, rapists and sexual violence against women.
Three years after the zine issue’s publication, in 1998, Goad served a two and a half year prison sentence for kidnapping and assault on his then-girlfriend, according to Willamette Weekly.
Several community members had previously complained about the magazine’s “offensive” cover and in-your-face content, according to archives from The Front and Bellingham Herald.
Hjelsand added that her stance on this case would have been “braver” had social media been around at the time, with the more worldwide audience and higher potential for doxxing — the act of publicly leaking private information about someone as a form of punishment.
“We had letters to the editor and some hate mail, you know, saying that they were praying for our soul,” Hjelsand said. “And that was, you know, about the extent of it.”
Breean Beggs, one of seven lawyers to represent Stohl and Hjelsand said that, at the time of the threat, The Newsstand had already stopped selling the zine. He added that the prosecutor for Whatcom County, Dave McEachran, threatened Stohl and Hjelsand with prosecution unless they agreed to never sell ANSWER Me! or anything similar again.
“[McEachran] said they couldn’t sell anything like it,” Beggs said. “And my clients asked him, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And he said, ‘You know what I mean.’”
Stohl and Hjelsand stopped selling the zine after the complaint from Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, though they believed the threat received was what’s called a prior restraint in First Amendment law.
Prior restraint is government action that prohibits speech, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute website.
In this case, the government action came from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, the government entity McEachran worked for.
The Newsstand put up a display stack of the zines with chains wrapped around them and a sign saying, “Not for sale due to censorship by the Whatcom County prosecutor.”
According to Beggs, McEachran in turn arrested both Stohl and Hjelsand for promotion of pornography and briefly placed them both in jail.
McEachran initially agreed to an interview about the prosecution, but ultimately declined The Front’s request.
According to 1995 coverage from The Tacoma News Tribune, McEachran had not previously brought pornography charges against any other Bellingham businesses, including a “small adult theater and an adult bookstore,” in his first 20 years as a prosecutor.
“You know, these two very nice people, not outspoken or anything, just the quietest, nicest people who just had a regular bookstore — not an adult bookstore — with a lot of magazines,” Beggs, the booksellers’ attorney, said. “It became clear that it was going to be a crisis very quickly. And I felt a little overwhelmed at the time to have the elected prosecutor coming after these people.”
After Stohl and Hjelsand were acquitted of the criminal charge of promotion of pornography, a felony, they filed a civil suit against the county. The civil suit argued that Stohl and Hjelsand’s First Amendment rights had been violated by Whatcom County, and it was supported by the ACLU’s Washington state chapter.
“The Newsstand case took up, I guess, a little more than two years I think, of our life from beginning to end,” Hjelsand said. “We couldn't travel anywhere outside of the state while that was still a criminal case. So, because it was a Class C felony, that kind of put our life on hold.”
If Hjelsand and Stohl had been convicted on felony charges, they faced the loss of their voting rights, as well as other penalties. In Washington state, the penalty for a Class C felony is up to five years in a state prison, a fine up to $10,000 or both.
“So it was scary, it was stressful, but it was also, you know, really angering, because it felt very, very much like an abuse of power from the beginning,” Hjelsand said.
After a two-week criminal trial, Stohl and Hjelsand were found not guilty. The court found that ANSWER Me! did not meet the legal tests for what constitutes pornography and obscenity, according to 1996 coverage from The Seattle Times.
After Stohl and Hjelsand were acquitted, they filed suit against Whatcom County in federal court, which found that Whatcom County had violated their First Amendment rights. The verdict required Whatcom County to pay $1.3 million in fees and damages to The Newsstand, Stohl, Hjelsand and their team of lawyers.
“Here's the thing about that, that civil verdict was far more important than the criminal ‘not guilty,’ because the county had to pay that money,” Beggs said. “So there's never been another attempted obscenity prosecution in Whatcom County or anywhere else in Washington, as far as I can tell.”
Joslin Keim is a third-year PR journalism major and a city life writer for The Front. Joslin’s writing focuses on the arts in and around Bellingham. Contact Joslin at email@example.com or @joslinkeim on Twitter.
Kate Yeoman is a third-year at Western and a reporter for The Front. Kate’s work includes campus-related news and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.