After four years of legal skirmishing in courts from here to New York in an attempt to save his controversial board game "Public Assistance" from financial extinction, Severna Park, Md., resident Robert Bowie Johnson Jr. is bloodied but unbowed.
Branded as racist by the NAACP, sexist by the National Organization for Women and demeaning by welfare groups, his Monopoly-like lampoon has been removed from hundreds of stores, Johnson says. In the game, players in the role of undeserving drones receive welfare "benefits" and conscientious workers receive financial "burdens" with the roll of the dice.
Now Johnson is fighting an uphill battle in the courts to dismantle what he says is a far-flung conspiracy by the NAACP, NOW, the Maryland state welfare bureaucracy and other groups to pressure retailers to keep the game, and his freedom of speech, just where they are -- suppressed.
Not so, say lawyers for the groups, who describe Johnson's $13 million lawsuit in Baltimore federal court as a frivolous one similar to a $5.5 million action he lost in New York in 1982.
The groups deny conspiring against Johnson. And while some acknowledge that they were critical of the game and urged stores not to sell it, they contend that their actions -- just like Johnson's -- are protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
"Freedom of speech," Johnson, 42, countered in a recent interview, "doesn't include the right to deny freedom of speech to others."
Of his game, he said, "It's the only one that's ever been banned in the United States." Well, almost banned, he indicated on further reflection. About 25 small mom-and-pop stores scattered widely across the country still stock the game at $15.95 each, he said. He said he receives five or six mail order requests a week at his modest home near Annapolis, where he lives with his wife and two teen-age daughters.
Gone are the salad days of late 1980 and early 1981 when he and co-inventor Ronald Pramschufer first marketed the game, sold more than 100,000 copies and rode a dizzying wave of national publicity, including a spot on the Phil Donohue show in Chicago.
Today, Johnson, a sometime crabber and lacrosse coach who peppers his conversation with "amen" and "Praised be the Lord," says he is saddled with debt and is scratching out a living as a freelance writer and editor.
At the same time, he said he is confident that he will prevail in court against the NAACP, NOW and what he calls the "welfare empire."
The intention of his game, he said, was to spoof, not to demean. Also behind it is a Reaganesque philosophy favoring private charity over public welfare, he said.
The welfare system is destructive to family life, he argued, especially among blacks who receive a disproportionate share of welfare.
"Liberals and humanists believe all people are good," he said. "If you mess up, they think you can be rehabilitated in six months and everything's okay. . . .But I believe in original sin and the redeeming power of Jesus. There's only one power to correct human error and that's God."
His game, formally called "Public Assistance -- Why Bother Working for a Living?", consists of a board on which players move tokens from space to space in an attempt to avoid work. They accumulate money through collection of welfare "benefits," such as food stamps and "illegitimate child" entitlements.
Players also try to avoid landing on spaces in the "working person's rut" that require payment of taxes, insurance and other financial and social obligations.
Spaces on the "Able-bodied Welfare Recipient's Promenade" include such instructions as "Lie on Application, Collect $100," "Steal Hub Caps, Collect $20" and "Shoplift on Way to Welfare Office, Collect $100."
A stack of "welfare benefit" cards, similar to "Chance" and "Community Chest" cards in Monopoly, also have a variety of messages: "Ethnic politician hires you 'under the table' to get out the welfare vote. Collect $200." And, "You are on welfare rolls in two states and in the District of Columbia. Collect triple all benefits when you reach or pass 1st of month."
When it was first marketed in 1980, the game unleashed a barrage of criticism from welfare and civil rights organizations. In New York City, then Human Resources Administrator Stanley Brezenoff wrote to 13 major department and toy stores urging them to discontinue the game.
Johnson sued Brezenoff and the city, alleging interference with free speech. He lost in federal District Court and on appeal.
In 1983, without a lawyer and on his own, he filed a $13 million lawsuit in Baltimore federal court against NOW, the American Public Welfare Association, Maryland regional NAACP director Emmett Burns, two high ranking officials of the Maryland Department of Human Resources and several other individuals, charging that they conspired to pressure stores to keep his game off their shelves.
The case is tentatively scheduled to go to trial next February.
The game is "in exquisite bad taste," said the NAACP's Emmett Burns. "It is a grotesque form of humor at the expense of black and poor people." American Public Welfare Association executive director Edward T. Weaver called it "callous, racist, sexist and a vicious brand of stereotyping."
Johnson said he especially objects to government agencies, such as the Maryland human resources department, using their influence to suppress his game.
But Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, defending a departmental letter encouraging Baltimore merchants not to stock the game, said in court papers that the First Amendment gives Johnson the right to attack the welfare system, "even in a scurrilous way," but it also "makes that attack a fair target for spoken or written responses."
Said Johnson: "I think the welfare system is racist itself. It infers subtly that the black race is inferior and will need welfare forever."