Whatcom `Porn' Case Gets Vendor $1.3 Million -- Judgment In Free- Speech Trial Is Largest Civil-Rights Award In State's History, Lawyer Says

The owner and manager of a Bellingham magazine store have won a $1.3 million civil-rights judgment against Whatcom County in a case in which they'd been forbidden to sell a magazine graphically depicting rape and torture.

Ira Stohl, owner of the Newstand, said he's happier about being right than being wealthy and was back on the job by 10 yesterday morning.

"But it is vindication," Stohl said. "It is also a big message for Whatcom County."

Stohl, 47, and store manager Kristina Hjelsand, 27, won what their attorney believes is the largest civil-rights judgment in Washington State history. A seven-woman, one-man jury in U.S. District Court in Seattle agreed that the Whatcom County prosecutor, Dave McEachran, had violated Stohl's and Hjelsand's First Amendment rights by telling them they could no longer sell copies of the magazine, called Answer Me!

Whatcom County could still appeal the judgment. McEachran told the Bellingham Herald that decision has to be reviewed. He said only that in light of the jury's decision, he'd handle a similar case differently in the future.

For Stohl, who opened the store in 1990, the nightmare began early in 1995 when a police officer came into his store, saw the copy of Answer Me!, and said he didn't think it looked legal. The magazine, published once a year on the home computer of a Portland couple, had previously focused on topics such as serial killings and suicide. This time the subject was rape.

The Newstand owners took the magazine off sale but left it on display, chained with a padlock, with a sign that said McEachran wouldn't allow it to be sold.

According to Tim Ford, the Seattle attorney for Stohl and Hjelsand who argued the case in federal court, McEachran told them not to sell the magazine or anything like it, and threatened prosecution if they resisted.

Race to courthouse

There ensued, on Valentine's Day in 1995, a race to the courthouse. In Whatcom County Superior Court, McEachran filed a criminal charge of promoting pornography. A half-hour later in federal court, Stohl's attorneys filed for an injunction and civil rights claim.

In February 1996, Stohl and Hjelsand were cleared of the criminal charge when a Superior Court jury found the magazine did not meet the legal test of what constitutes pornography. By law, material is obscene if the average person finds the work appeals to the prurient interest; it depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

During the criminal trial, the defense argued that the magazine is a kind of political satire, "designed to shock and horrify the reader" into thinking about the true nature of rape.

On Friday, the federal court found Whatcom County had violated Stohl's and Hjelsand's First Amendment rights, caused emotional suffering and damaged their business.

Stohl and others said the two cases have been the biggest controversy they can remember in the Northwest Washington city.

Berkeley and Forks

Bellingham is half lumber camp and half college town, a cross between Berkeley and Forks. It is a shopping area for the metropolis of Vancouver, B.C. And the Newstand reflects the diversity. With more than 4,000 titles, it is one of the largest magazine stores in the Northwest, with topics ranging from knitting to shotguns.

Since he was accused, Stohl said, the local newspaper has written between 50 and 80 stories about the controversy and printed a number of letters to the editor about his store.

"There is a polarization here," he said. "I lost very few customers, but there was a constant barrage of publicity of all kinds relating to the charge of promoting pornography - a felony. There are people who would never walk through our door, who think our store is totally different, who would love it if they came in."

Ford said the judgment was for legal expenses in Superior Court and business lost as a result of the prosecution. Ford's legal fees will be paid in addition to the $1.3 million.

The jury award includes $50,000 each to each of the plaintiffs for prior restraint, and $768,169 to Stohl and $428,484 to Hjelsand for retaliatory prosecution.

Stohl said he owes about $250,000 in legal bills and other business debts.

"I never expected an award like this," he said. "It was so gratifying to be able to tell my story. It has been such a long thing for us, I would be thrilled if it actually ended."

The county has 30 days to appeal.