Like Father, Like Son: The freedom fighters we love to hate

November 21, 2018

 Photo submitted

Bob Carlson (L) with his son, Jim, in St. Paul circa 1974. Both would become infamous for their pitched battles with the City of Duluth over drugs, obscenity, freedom of expression, and the limits of government control.



Taylor Martin-Romme

Zenith News


Robert Olaf Carlson happened to share a birthday, April 9, with his hero—fellow smut-peddler and First Amendment activist Hugh Hefner. Both fought controversial, but largely successful, battles against government suppression of protected speech under the guise of controlling “obscenity.”


Carlson died at his home in Duluth on October 1 at the age of 91. He was preceded in death by his youngest son, David, and is survived by a son, a daughter, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.


The proprietor of adult bookstores in the Twin Cities, Rochester, and St. Cloud, Carlson opened Discount Books and Magazines in Duluth in June 1969. Within two weeks, he was arrested 15 times, for everything from failing to give a customer a receipt to distributing pornography.


“[Police] were doing raids on him,” says grandson Joey Gellerman. “They would come through the store and he’d shut all the lights off [or] he’d let them in and then lock the store so they couldn’t get back out...He felt it was right to give people the choice to buy these products. He was a big advocate of choice.”


Carlson was charged with 89 counts of “obscenity” and posted a total $4,000 bail—nearly $28,000 in 2018 dollars. His first trial began in Duluth Municipal Court in February 1970, but ended almost immediately in a mistrial after one of the jurors received an “obscene phone call.”


A new jury was quickly seated and, on March 24, 1970, Carlson was convicted on 41 counts of selling books and magazines that “depicted sex acts.” He was fined $13,000 (nearly $85,000 in 2018 dollars) and sentenced to 90 days in the workhouse—forced labor camps that sheltered the poor and disabled, where convicts were sometimes sentenced if their terms were too short for prison.


If all this sounds familiar—the police raids, the mob mentality, the moral pearl-clutching—Bob Carlson’s eldest son, Jim, is more recently notorious in Duluth for selling synthetic marijuana at his now-defunct headshop.


Jim Carlson shared memories of his father via email from the federal prison in Milan, Michigan, where he is currently serving a 17-year sentence. “I visited him every month while I worked his store. He was down to one store and owed more than it was worth, so, with his consent, I shut it down and opened Last Place on Earth, saving all the books and magazines for when he got out.”


Bob Carlson was no more inclined to cave to government pressure than his son would prove to be 40 years later. As soon as he got out of the workhouse (St. Paul and Rochester had also convicted him of obscenity, adding another 180 days to his sentence), Carlson reopened the store as Discount Books and filed an appeal of his conviction with the Minnesota Supreme Court.


“We will appeal until we get a reversal, and we will get a reversal,” Carlson’s attorney, Thomas Burke, told the News-Tribune. “Times have changes in the United States. There have been decisions by our U.S. Supreme Court that have given the adult a little more freedom to view, read, and hear what he chooses.”


Jacobellis v. Ohio (1967) had reversed the conviction of an art house theater owner for showing the Louis Malle film Les Amants. The Court ruled that the First Amendment protects all erotic or obscene material except “hard-core pornography”—although the justices couldn’t agree what that was, issuing four different definitions of “hard-core pornography,” including Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it.”


Stanley v. Georgia (1969) invalidated state laws criminalizing the private possession of pornography, the Court ruling unanimously that the Constitution implies a distinction between private possession and public display.


Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority: “Mere categorization of these films as ‘obscene’ is insufficient justification for such a drastic invasion of personal liberties...If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man...what books he may read or what films he may watch. Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.”


In light of the judicial mood at the time, City Attorney Thomas Plante called off the dogs. He announced that he would no longer pursue charges against Carlson for “selling pornography to willing adult buyers.”


But the citizens of Duluth were having none of it. They took the rare and not-really-entirely-legal step of convening their own grand jury. Unable to subpoena evidence or bring charges against Carlson (the normal functions of a real grand jury), the month-long affair in February 1971 was mostly a chance to vent their spleen at Plante.


“The material [in Carlson’s store] all too graphically depicts not only sexual intercourse in explicit detail, but also various forms of perversion,” the group wrote in a report submitted to the District Court. “The materials without a doubt lack any shred of redeeming social value.”


The meandering report called for stricter state and local laws against obscenity, demanded that Plante resume prosecuting Carlson, and even took a few swipes at the bleeding-hearts who called for closure of the workhouse, providing pages of questionably relevant details about the workhouse’s “humane and satisfactory conditions.”


And the bloodthirsty mob won. By November, Plante had been replaced by City Attorney William Dinan, who renewed the investigation of Carlson, and the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Carlson’s conviction 4-3, though the dissenting justices claimed that the decision violated the Jacobellis and Stanley decisions. (By then, a third obscenity case, which would be known as Miller v. California, was also working its way through the courts.)


There’s a saying among lawyers that “Hard cases make bad law,” meaning complicated or emotional circumstances are a poor basis for policy. But that’s never stopped Duluthians when it comes to the Carlson family.


At the height of the public furor over Last Place on Earth, the Duluth City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal to consume anything labeled not for human consumption, and tried to force Jim Carlson to obtain a license to sell products that they were claiming were illegal—a blatant self-incrimination trap.


Forty years prior, they did the same thing to his father. Hamstrung by the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow cities to ban things simply because some residents have a stick up their ass, the Duluth City Council spent most of the ’70s writing obscenity laws, First Amendment be damned.


On October 29, 1973, the City Council passed two ordinances, one prohibiting the sale of and the other prohibiting the display of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual arousal, and “slang words used to refer to genitals, sexual conduct, or excretory functions.”


Yes, in 1973, Duluth tried to make cussing illegal—and they got surprisingly far with it.


More than 1,900 residents signed a petition to rescind the ordinances, but Dinan blocked it on the basis that a single petition could not be used to challenge two separate ordinances. The City Attorney’s Office issued a statement of its intentions “to prosecute as often as possible and force X-rated bookstores out of business.”


Not that Duluth has a whole lot of X-rated bookstores. It was a law written for one person—Bob Carlson—and the skirmishes between Carlson and the city’s arbiters of morality continued for several years until the ordinances were finally repealed.


Carlson rechristened his store R.O. Carlson’s Used Book and Record, and within 20 years, everyone seemed to have forgotten it was ever controversial. “Store offers visions of life’s diversity,” ran a 1988 headline in the Duluth News-Tribune. A 1996 paean to the shop in the DNT called it “a sanctuary...eclectic and oddly entrancing.”


But it’s not quite as easy for the Carlson family to forget the pain of those years, or the later campaign that would send Jim Carlson to prison. But it’s also not how they remember their father and grandfather.


“He was super-generous,” says Gellerman. “He would give you his shirt off his back if he saw you were struggling. He was there to help almost to a fault sometimes, beyond what he could afford. He was very trusting too.  He had three of the first original Playboys [the magazine put out by his hero, Hugh Hefner], which were worth around $4,000 to $6,000 at the time. Every one of those he gave to somebody, and he never saw a dime.


“He was willing to stand up to the government, to the City, and say that you have a right to do something. It took a lot of balls to stand up and say that other people should be able to do what they wanted to do. I think [my dad] definitely was caught by that bug, that we’re helping people. We’re giving them the option.”


Jim Carlson enjoyed trips to the Boundary Waters with his father. “He always brought a bag with nuts, vitamins, and his camera. At a portage, a bear comes along. I see it grab the bag and I tell Pappy. As he is chasing the bear, he says, ‘By the way, I put your herb in there.’


“Eventually the bear spit everything out but the nuts. My pipe had teeth marks in it. I would show it to tokers, telling them about the ferocious bear I had to wrestle to get my [marijuana] back.  


“Pappy truly was a freedom fighter for free speech, willing to spend time for people’s rights. A pervert who served his country! Although [after the bear incident], he preferred me to carry a camera over a gun."


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