Possession of Naughty Manga Should Not Equal Six Months in Prison

This is a picture of a girl and her beloved hamster. If you think there may be more to their relationship, you may have just committed a thought crime.

Last week, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa imposed a six-month prison sentence on a comic book collector who pled guilty to possessing seven manga-style comics imported from Japan that contained illustrations of child sex and bestiality.

This case is a victory for cartoon images of Japanese children everywhere. But don’t be fooled; this result does absolutely nothing to protect actual children.  The only thing this prosecution accomplished was to limit our First Amendment rights.

By way of background, David Kravets reports in Wired’s Threat Level:

Christopher Handley was sentenced in Iowa on Thursday, (.pdf) almost a year after pleading guilty to charges of possessing “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.”

The 40-year-old was charged under the 2003 [PROTECT] Act, which outlaws cartoons, drawings, sculptures or paintings depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct, and which lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Handley was the nation’s first to be convicted under that law for possessing cartoon art, without any evidence that he also collected or viewed genuine child pornography.

Siouxsie thinks that the prosecution of Mr. Handley was unnecessary and wrongheaded, and that the underlying law is seriously flawed.

There is no dispute that the majority of Mr. Handley’s collection (which consisted of more than 1,200 manga books; hundreds of DVDs, VHS tapes, laser disks; and seven computers) did not violate any laws.  Nor is there any dispute that Mr. Handley had absolutely no child pornography in his possession.  [source]  There was no evidence that he had ever approached children or had any intent to do so, or that he had even viewed child pornography on his computer.

At issue were a few manga publications, albeit ones with very disturbing drawings depicting young manga characters being sexually abused by adult characters and engaging in bestiality.  [source]  Ick.

And had the case gone to trial, Mr. Handley could have been convicted if a jury found that the sexually explicit drawings were legally obscene.  Under the Miller test, material is legally obscene when the following criteria are met:

  • Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law,
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. [source]

It is probably safe to assume that your average jury member in Iowa does not read manga or comics regularly (or have much familiarity with them).   And if convicted, Mr. Handley faced up to 15 years in prison.  So, it is difficult to find fault with Mr. Handley’s decision to plead guilty.

Mr. Handley’s case demonstrates why the provisions of the 2003 PROTECT Act, which outlaw “obscene” cartoons, drawings, sculptures or paintings depicting minors engaging in sex,  don’t make a lot of sense.  The prosecution of Mr. Handley for possessing nothing other than drawings of fictional characters is wrong.  It is the criminalization of a victimless thought crime.

Criminalizing the possession of drawings is absurd, especially here.  Manga characters are not actual kids.  They are cartoons for heathen’s sake.  No one would mistake these images for actual kids.   And many characters do not even have ages associated with them:

“There is explicit sex in yaoi comics,” Handley’s lawyer Eric Chase told MTV. “And the men are drawn in a very androgynous style, which has the effect of making them look really young. There’s a real taboo in Japan about showing pubic hair, so they’re all drawn without it, which also makes them look young.  [source]

For those that think that prosecutions like this one are necessary to protect actual kids, you are wrong.  This is utterly distinct from prosecuting individuals for possessing child pornography (which uses and harms actual children) or even simulated child pornography (which uses images so closely resembling actual children that it is difficult to tell the difference).

Not only does the prosecution of Mr. Handley make little sense in terms of protecting actual children, his prosecution is a worrisome attack on the First Amendment.  If you can be prosecuted for drawings because they depict sex crimes against minors (and are perceived by a prosecutor and/or jury as lacking any artistic value) then many comics, books, and films are susceptible to attack.  Though the prosecution in Mr. Handley’s case suggests that Nabokov’s Lolita would probably not be subject to prosecution under the statute, [source], it is not difficult to imagine that someone could be sentenced to prison for possessing an especially graphic and naughty manga version of the story.

Neil Gaiman in discussing Mr. Handley’s case sums up why it is so important to sometimes defend speech that you yourself might despise:

Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you’re going to have to stand up for stuff you don’t believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election[*], because one person’s obscenity is another person’s art.  [source]

This law needs to be challenged.  Siouxsie thinks a little civil disobedience might do the trick.  And so Siouxsie hopes that a group of well-known artists and writers will band together (like a group of super heroes) and craft the most filthy and dirty graphic-novel adaptations of Lolita, Romeo and Juliet,  American Beauty, and others, with the intent of violating the PROTECT Act and daring the government to go after them collectively.  Proceeds could be donated to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

*Siouxsie understands that U.S. Attorneys are political appointees and not elected officials.  But his point is still valid.  Mr. Gaiman is a genius and from England.

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~ by siouxsielaw on February 17, 2010.

5 Responses to “Possession of Naughty Manga Should Not Equal Six Months in Prison”

  1. Yikes. This law is scary.

  2. […] as Siouxsielaw.com notes, no actual children are involved.  Laws against child pornography protect actual children […]

  3. What’s more dangerous at a Comic Con, cartoon kiddie porn, or the parents who ask me to be in a picture with their 13 year old daughters?

  4. […] United States v. Handley — man sentenced to six months in prison for possessing manga […]

  5. What does this say about the parts of my Sailor Moon doujinshi collection I haven’t sold back to eBay since breaking my digital camera?

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