Protect Yourself at International Borders

by Betsy Gomez

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival takes place this weekend, and CBLDF wants to make comics fans and creators crossing the border into Canada aware of their rights. Last year, several creators were subject to intrusive search on their way to TCAF, and creators Tom Neely and Dylan Williams had books seized by Canada Customs. In 2010, comics fan Ryan Matheson was arrested when he crossed the Canadian border with what Canada Customs thought were objectionable comic books on his laptop. You need to know your rights when crossing international borders with comic books.

In an interview with CBLDF, Neely and Williams described the search that led to the seizure before last year’s TCAF:

Neely: They asked us to stand by the wall of the building and asked for the keys to our car. They opened up our suitcases and pulled out a random sampling of about 5 comic books we had in our bags. Those included Blaise Larmee’s Young Lions and the Black Eye anthology published by Rotland Press, of which I’m a contributor. The security guy asked us what the books were. We described them as “art comics,” and he said he was going to take them inside for review. While we waited, two other security guards came out, opened the car and proceeded to pull out everything in the entire vehicle, pulled out a copy every book, and then went back inside.

Williams: The customs people pulled us over because we were importing merchandise. One agent went through our bags and pulled out a sample of books. He then came back out with Black Eye and Young Lions and asked us about them. Then two more agents came out and searched every bag in our car. They damaged some books. They were all really nice however, especially the first agent who talked with us about the content of the book.

Neely and Williams’ experience with Canada Customs agents doesn’t align with the experience faced by Matheson:

“I believe my treatment throughout the entire ordeal was unfair and unjust. I was abused by the police. The police station jail cell was kept unreasonably cold, and I was given a freezing cold slab of concrete as a bed. I asked for blankets or a pillow but was denied. I asked for food but was denied even after asking at least five times. 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. 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. These are the horrible things I had to go through when I was simply accused of something.”

The good news is that Matheson’s ordeal is now over, and Neely and Williams were never accused of wrongdoing or arrested, even if they didn’t have the confiscated books to sell during TCAF. The bad news is that this kind of persecution can happen again.

CBLDF is pleased to offer important resources that you should read before you cross a foreign border. These tools aren’t designed to take the place of your lawyer. Nothing in them is intended as legal advice. But they are important overviews of the concerns travelers now face when crossing borders with comic art in printed form and on digital devices. These resources are must-reads for anyone crossing international borders with comic books.

Legal Hazards of Crossing International Borders With Comic Art — Prepared by Davis Wright Tremaine, this general advisory addresses issues concerning entering the United States with expressive materials, provides an overview of the phenomenon of border searches of expressive materials, describes the basic legal framework governing such searches, and offers some general suggestions for international travelers planning to transport expressive materials.

Pornographic Anime and Manga Under Canadian Law — Prepared by Edelson, Clifford, and D’Angelo, in light of the issues faced in R. v. Matheson, this memo addresses the disposition of Canadian law towards anime and manga, outlines the powers of Canada Border Services Agency, and provides a detailed discussion of the definition of child pornography under Canadian law, alongside the related sentencing guidelines and defenses for that offense.

Electronic Devices Privacy Handbook: A Guide To Your Rights — Prepared and hosted by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, this handbook is focused on privacy issues concerning travelers crossing the Canadian border with electronic devices. This tool addresses your rights at the Canadian border, including a discussion of the Customs Act, an overview of CBSA policies, best practices when crossing the Canadian border, and information on what to do if you’ve been searched.

Defending Privacy At The U.S. Border — Prepared and hosted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this resource provides an overview of privacy issues at the U.S. border, and detailed tips on how to protect your privacy and data, and what to do when interacting with border agents.

CBLDF Advisory: Crossing International Borders — Compiled by CBLDF in conjunction with our initial announcement about the Canada Customs Case and an increasing number of searches and seizures at international borders, this document discusses US Customs policies, the lack of legal protections during border searches, and suggestions for avoiding border searches.

In the event of a First Amendment emergency, call CBLDF at 1-800-99-CBLDF or send us an email at We’re here to help!

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and provision of resources such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!