News Roundup: The Ryan Matheson Case

March 23, 2012
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by Betsy Gomez

Last week, CBLDF announced that Canadian criminal charges against American comics fan Ryan Matheson had been dropped. In turn, Matheson spoke out on his own behalf in a lengthy statement about how he was treated by Canadian authorities, a statement that imparted the indignation and confusion any innocent comics fan would feel after being exonerated from a crime he or she did not commit.

Several news outlets covered the story. Brigid Alverson at Comic Book Resources has been on top of the story since CBLDF announced the case last year. In her reporting on the dropped charges, she details Matheson’s arrest and mistreatment:

The customs officer went to his supervisor’s office and checked the definition of child pornography in the Canadian criminal code before deciding to detain Matheson. (The border officers’ statements are unclear as to at what point Matheson was officially placed under arrest and whose decision it was to arrest him.) The officer read Matheson his rights, and Matheson said he did not want to contact a lawyer or the U.S. Embassy. Matheson said in the court papers that at this point “he did not think that anything was ‘seriously wrong,’” because the court officers repeatedly referred to the image as “borderline.” They also told him that he could speak to someone from the U.S. Embassy “anytime” if need be. “Several times that day I was told that I was going to be let free, but through delays and uncertainty of the situation the police finally decided to arrest me,” Matheson said in his statement to CBLDF.

At this point, the customs officers called the Ottawa Police Services. The police officer who responded later wrote in his report that “they were not sure if the images constituted pornography.” He spent about two minutes looking at the image, then called a detective from the high-tech crime team who told him, without actually seeing the image, that it would be child pornography. She asked that Matheson be arrested and taken to the police station. Although the situation had escalated at this point, the police did not read Matheson his rights or give him the opportunity to call a lawyer until more than an hour later.

Matheson was taken to the Ottawa Police Central Division cellblock. At this point, he had been traveling or in detention for over ten hours, but when he asked for something to eat, he was mocked or ignored. He was given a muffin the next morning, and although the cells were cold, he was not given a blanket. “I politely asked an officer at the police station if I could speak to the U.S. embassy, but she replied, ‘Are you serious? I don’t think we have that here,’ and walked away,” Matheson said. “I was never able to talk to the embassy and even when my brother arrived for my bail, he too was denied from seeing me at all. Police officers who transported me would slam metal doors on my head and laugh at me, saying, ‘this one’s easy!’ And finally, after being transported to the long-term detention center, guards would torment me with phrases like, ‘you know, if you get raped in here, it doesn’t count!’ I was jailed for five days before bail, longer than most people.”

Although Matheson had no criminal record, the first prosecutor in the case set stringent bail conditions for his release. “My bail conditions tightly restricted my use of computers and the Internet,” Matheson said. “My conditions had even specifically named a single company I could work for, which prevented me from advancing my professional career. I am a computer programmer and I’ve been in love with computers ever since I was seven years old. To place such overbearing conditions on me was heart-wrenching and very difficult to endure.”

If you missed it, CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein spoke with Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter at length about the case. When asked about why the prosecution dropped the charges, Brownstein said:

I think that the facts were very bad for the prosecution. Ryan was outrageously mistreated in the course of his ordeal: his search was not conducted in a constitutionally valid fashion; he was denied access to counsel; he was denied basic necessities like food and blankets; he was denied access to the American embassy; he was taunted by police who actually told him he could be raped.

And the art in question had unquestionable artistic merit, was not obscene, and was not child pornography. One of the two images that we believe to have been at issue is this Moe style parody of the “48 positions,” which is a kind of Japanese Kama Sutra, which is itself a parody of the 48 Sumo positions. This link has background on the source images.

Jason Thompson at io9 also discussed the reason why the charges were dropped:

Shortly before the February 2012 trial date, the charges were dropped. Charles Brownstein, executive director of the CBLDF, said in an interview with The Comics Reporter that the breakthrough in the case was a change in prosecutors, as well as a strong defense from the legal team — Michael Edelson and Solomon Friedman of Edelson Clifford D’Angelo LLP — that the new prosecutor may have thought hard to beat. The defense begins with the argument that the Canadian customs officers overstepped their roles and acted as agents for the local police force, never telling Matheson when his routine customs search became a criminal investigation. Edelson also invoked free speech and cruel and unusual punishment, to quote from the Charter Notice:

“He had his liberty restrained (and still does because of his bail conditions). He had his  private property taken. He had his hard drive, which contained intimate details of his life, searched relentlessly. He was made to feel physically uncomfortable and then psychologically threatened in a foreign country with no access to his embassy…

“The images in question do not depict real people. They do not depict real children. They are fictional comic characters. Society’s interest in seeing Mr. Matheson stand trial for the possession of these images, after the way he has been treated, is minimal at best. The images in question do not offend moral sensibilities the way real depictions would, nor is there danger or risk posed to children.

“Given the way that the Applicant has been treated, the conclusion necessarily follows that the admission of any evidence obtained after his referral to secondary inspection would tend to bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”

Laura Hudson covered the case for Comics Alliance, noting that Canadian authorities have held a “dim view of manga content” for a while. She related a story that Alverson wrote in 2006 about a female manga fan who faced Canadian authorities:

The dim view of manga content by Canadian border authorities is echoed in a disturbing 2006 blog post pointed out by Brigid Alverson, where a Canadian woman named Elizabeth McClung described her experience bringing manga across the Canadian border:

Saturday, I was surrounded by six officers, two watching me as the four others went page by page through my books looking for pornographic images and other evidence I was a sexual predator. How did this happen? I said a word which Canada Customs considers dirty: Manga. As soon as I declared that I had some of the Japanese-inspired comic books called manga, a Custom’s officer said, “That’s the stuff from Japan; there is some really obscene and filthy stuff.” No, I pointed out, these were printed in America and very mainstream. As more and more officers were called in, the six manga books I had were examined in detail. They were looking, they told me, for pornographic, obscene and adult material. “The age rating is on the back of each book.” (each manga book has ratings like 13+ or 15+ — mine were 13+). I was informed that I could have put different covers on or done anything else I could to get the pornography in and that if I spoke anymore, the books would be seized. So I stood there and watched my previously new books get examined page by page, thumbed through and pressed open because it was assumed if I read manga, that I was a sex offender.

Thompson sums up for io9:

In short: thanks to a strong legal defense and sticking to his guns, Matheson is cleared of charges, but Canadian customs is still infamously intrusive, prudish and unaccountable to the public, recently condemning and confiscating not only extraterrestrial shapeshifting ageplay dojinshi but also The Snuff Taker’s Ephemeris, a magazine about snuff tobacco (it had a nude painting in it); Black Eye, a black humor comics anthology; and Miki Aihara’s ages-13-and-up Tokyo Boys and Girls (customs officer: “That’s the stuff from Japan; there’s some really obscene and filthy stuff!”).Matheson’s ordeal is over, well, mostly: he’s still $45,000 in the hole for legal charges related to his defense, despite the CBLDF and CLLLF raising over $30,000 for his case. Make a contribution at cbldf.org. Considering Matheson’s passionate statement in his defense, I can’t help but think he’d also make a good speaker on censorship issues, if any anime convention this summer is looking for a guest.

The Beat also covered the story, making a statement that strikes home:

Although we often joke here at the Beat about the affability of Canada as a nation, this is a pretty disturbing story.

If you’re traveling across an international border with comics, please read Know Your Rights — Tools For Travelers Crossing International Borders. CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein lays out some tools you can use to protect yourself from intrusive searches and arrest.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.