The leader of the Spokane County Republican Party and several other prominent conservatives are pointing to an important First Amendment case in Washington in an attempt to accuse Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs of defending rape culture.
Beggs was one of seven lawyers who, more than 20 years ago, agreed to represent Bellingham bookstore owners facing a felony charge of promoting pornography.
The store was selling a magazine, written at least in part by rape victims, that graphically depicted sexual assault, mutilation and torture. The lawyers successfully argued to a jury that the magazine was satire, not pornography, and later the prosecutor who brought the case received a hefty fine for infringing free speech.
Beggs, who is in the midst of a campaign to hold his seat on the Spokane City Council representing the South Hill, said he didn’t endorse the language or images used in the magazine, but was sticking up for a small business owner facing overzealous prosecution clearly in violation of free speech rights.
“My job was not to defend the magazine, but to defend two bookstore owners who stood up to the prosecutor,” Beggs said.
Spokane County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Cates posted to Facebook on Tuesday night as a “concerned citizen” questioning Beggs’ work in the mid-1990s defending The Newsstand, a Bellingham bookstore that became the target of complaints about an alternative magazine dealing with rape called “Answer Me!”
David S. McEachran, the Whatcom County prosecuting attorney, demanded removal of the magazine from bookstore shelves and later charged the bookstore owners with promoting pornography, a felony that could have imprisoned them for up to five years and fined them up to $10,000.
Cates said her post was intended to start a discussion about whether the speech was acceptable. She said she hadn’t read the entirety of the magazine, but that the two excerpts were “enough” to cause her to question Beggs’ legal work.
“Women, if you showed these pieces to them, would probably have a pretty strong gut reaction,” she said. Cates said the writings brought up questions of what speech should be protected and what should not, despite the Whatcom County jury’s conclusion two decades ago that the magazine was protected by the First Amendment.
Cates’ post included several factual inaccuracies, including that the magazine was on newsstands in Portland (it was Bellingham) and that the effort kept the magazines on store shelves (they were removed by the owners once complaints were made). Cates said she was also unaware that the prosecutor in the case, McEachran, was fined $1.3 million for infringing on the free speech of the bookstore owners, whom Beggs represented, and that some of the stories appearing in the magazine were written by rape victims.
Beggs said he didn’t consider the content of the magazine to be hate speech.
“Once you read it cover to cover, you realize it’s a political speech magazine. It’s anti-violence, it’s anti-rape, and it does not take the position women should be demeaned,” Beggs said.
Cates said “she didn’t have an answer” to whether prosecutors overstepped their bounds.
“I’m approaching this more as a woman who is concerned about the culture and what’s out there, that might inspire violent behavior towards women,” she said.
A jury ruled the content, which included graphic passages written from the perspective of a man arguing women should be beaten and raped, was not pornographic. A Seattle Times article published at the end of the trial in February 1996 noted four of the nine witnesses for the defense were rape victims themselves who “testified that reading ‘Answer Me!’ was therapeutic.”
“Our witnesses were sex crime victims, testifying in favor of not prosecuting these bookstore owners,” Beggs said.
One of those witnesses was Molly Kiely, a cartoonist who submitted artwork for the magazine’s edition that depicted her own rape. In an email, Kiely – who now operates a studio in Arizona – said Cates’ comments were “most unfortunate, as I recall Breean being an upstanding person.”
“There was nothing that celebrated rape. It absolutely was an over-the-top assault on your senses, but it was a wake-up call: rape and rape culture are prevalent, and awful,” Kiely wrote of the magazine’s issue.
The Spokesman-Review published two accounts of the case through Associated Press dispatches in 1995. In one of those stories, Beggs is quoted as saying McEachran and critics of the magazine didn’t understand the satirical approach of its authors.
“The prosecutor says that it promotes rape and violence against women,” Beggs is quoted as saying. “In my opinion, he misses the whole point, which is that it’s so bad, you want to do something to stop it.”
The case reached the pages of the New York Times in November 1995, under the headline “Question Put Before Court: Is Magazine Smut or Satire?” The article notes that several women’s advocacy groups were outraged by the content of the magazine, and there was an effort at nearby Western Washington University to boycott the bookstore.
The legal case’s outcome has been cited in multiple media law textbooks and legal reviews as an example of excessive government action in violation of the First Amendment.
Cates, who said she was acting on her own and not as chair of the local GOP, questioned whether the response would be magnified if a council member seen as conservative had defended the right of the bookstore owners to sell such material.
“I just find it interesting that people are defending this publication,” Cates said. “I don’t understand. Is it because of which side he’s on? If Councilman (Mike) Fagan had defended this, would it be different?”
Fagan and Tim Benn, who is running for City Council in northeast Spokane, made comments on Cates’ Facebook page condemning the article and questioning Beggs’ involvement in the case.
Beggs’ race against Andy Dunau is the only City Council contest in which the Republican Party hasn’t endorsed a candidate. Beggs called it unfortunate that political foes were trying to make an issue of a legal case that didn’t have anything to do with city government.
“I don’t see how this has any connection with the City Council campaign,” he said. “This seems like a last-gasp attempt to try to confuse people about the candidates.”
Ballots are due to the elections office Tuesday.