If there’s one thing we know about North American Customs officials, it’s that they are not, by and large, aficionados of manga. Art that’s fairly commonplace in Japan can easily be labeled as child porn at U.S. and Canadian ports of entry, sometimes resulting in criminal charges, even though a crime has not been committed and no actual children are involved. Forbes fandom correspondent Lauren Orsini recently spoke with CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein about the potential pitfalls of traveling with manga.
While planning an upcoming trip to Japan, Orsini was specifically wondering whether she would have any trouble bringing back doujinshi, fan-created parodies that are often erotic. The answer: She very possibly could, even though any sort of drawn erotica should be constitutionally protected in the U.S. At the very least, she could face a long, stressful, and expensive legal case like that of Christopher Handley, the defendant in U.S. v. Handley. According to Brownstein, Handley had an “encyclopedic collection of manga” contained in “hundreds and hundreds of books, hundreds of DVDs, and seven computers.”
When authorities seized Handley’s entire collection from his house in Iowa, Brownstein said, the only items they ultimately prosecuted him for were “seven doujinshi titles which he may or may not have gotten through the mail. It was a really ugly case.” Facing a mandatory minimum sentence if convicted, on the advice of his counsel Handley took a plea deal for six months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. CBLDF did not manage Handley’s defense, but did provide expert testimony later in the case.
Because the constitutionality of cases like Handley’s has not been fully tested, manga fans possessing similar content do risk a similar ordeal says Brownstein:
People facing these charges are facing mandatory minimum sentences of multiple years in prison and a child sex offender status, so they tend to plead down. There really have not been structural changes in the landscape following U.S. v. Handley because there was not a binding precedent. It means that the risks are still there for bringing content through.
Another chilling case that ended more happily was R. v. Matheson, which illuminates the particular sensitivity of Canadian Customs regarding manga. In 2010, U.S. citizen Ryan Matheson was arrested on entry into Canada due to a single parody image which, says Brownstein, “was seen [by Canadian authorities] as ‘obviously five or six-year-olds being physically abused,’ which is patently ridiculous.” Many Customs agents, he adds, reportedly consider manga — any manga — to be “a code word for pornography.”
With legal representation funded and coordinated by CBLDF and our Canadian counterpart the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, all charges against Matheson were finally dropped in 2012. Brownstein stressed the importance of solidarity among manga fans when one of them faces prosecution, even if it’s for content not to everyone’s taste:
One of the things that happened with Ryan and Chris [Handley] before him is that the fan space on the Internet really turned on them and said, ‘well that guy had porn so he got what he deserved.’ First, there’s nothing wrong with having pornography, it’s protected by the First Amendment, that is your right. Second, selling your fellow fan down the river because their particular brand of content differs from yours does nothing to elevate appreciation of manga, does nothing to protect other people from experiencing a negative outcome for enjoying it.
Check out Orsini’s Forbes piece here. If you are a manga fan of any stripe, particularly if you will be traveling internationally with manga, bookmark our legal resources below. And if you do run into trouble, don’t hesitate to call our emergency hotline at 1-800-99-CBLDF!
- CBLDF Case Files – U.S. v. Handley
- CBLDF Case Files – R. v. Matheson
- Advisory: Crossing International Borders
- Advisory: Canada Customs and Comics
Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2016 by visiting the Rewards Zone, making a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!
CBLDF Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.