Vendors face jail, fine for refusing to guarantee obscenity ban
WASHINGTON–A store owner and manager in Bellingham face the possibility of spending five years in jail and paying $10,000 each for their refusal to guarantee that certain publications would not be sold in the store.
Ira Stohl, the owner of The Newsstand, a magazine shop and coffee house, and Kristena Hjelsand, the store’s manager, will stand trial in late January 1996 on felony charges of promoting pornography.
In February 1995 Stohl and Hjelsand were ordered by Whatcom County prosecutor David McEachran to remove an issue of the underground magazine Answer Me from its shelves. The magazine featured graphic fictional accounts of rape, photographs of beheaded crime victims, and a pullout section entitled “The Rape Game,” according to The New York Times.
After they had removed the issue from the shelves, the county prosecutor ordered The Newsstand to remove a display in which the magazine is bound by chains and coupled with a sign reading “Not for Sale.” Stohl and Hjelsand refused to remove the display and stated that they would not pledge never to sell Answer Me, or anything like it. They were then arrested.
With 5,000 magazines in stock each week, the pair did not think it practical to promise that nothing obscene would ever be offered for sale. “And how do I know what obscenity is anyway?” Stohl said to the New York Times.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. While definitions may vary from region to region, obscene material generally must offend contemporary community standards, depict patently offensive conduct of the most prurient nature, and be completely devoid of any artistic, political, literary or scientific value. (State v. Stohl; Media Counsel: Breean Beggs, Bellingham, Wash.)