Aaron R. Davis
An Iowa comic book collector who doesn’t own any child pornography has been convicted of possessing child pornography.
Christopher Handley, a 39 year-old officer worker who collects manga, has pled guilty to two counts of obscenity: mailing obscene matter and “possession of obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.” Three more counts were dropped as part of a plea bargain.
He faces 15 years in prison for collecting comic books.
How did we get to this?
In 2002, the Supreme Court struck down the “Morphing Law,” which held that fictional cartoon or photoshopped images depicting minors would be treated as obscene. In 2003, Congress passed the PROTECT Act, which held that a drawing, cartoon, sculpture or painting showing children in sexual situations could be ruled illegal if local community standards – one of the hardest things in the world to quantify – considered it obscene.
Drawings of fictional characters are pornography? I can understand child pornography laws that are in place to protect children from sexual abuse, but most of those laws have covered photography and film. How are children actually going to be protected by this conviction? And how does a court determine if a comic book character is a “minor”? They don’t actually exist.
What Handley had among his manga collection were a few graphic novels that, according to customs officials, contained images of bestiality and children being sexually abused. Handley had some lolicon and yaoi books. For those who don’t know, lolicon is a genre of manga that depicts childlike female characters in erotic situations. Yaoi is a romance genre dealing with stories about young homosexual men. Apparently women are the main audience for yaoi, but because the men are androgynous and because the depiction of pubic hair is taboo in Japan, they looked like children to customs officials.
I have a question: why, exactly, were customs officials opening his mail? Everything I’ve read about this case says that this all started when customs officials seized a package addressed to Handley. What cause did they have to open his mail?
Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, said, “This art that this man possessed as part of a larger collection of manga … is now the basis for [a sentence] designed to protect children from abuse. The drawings are not obscene and are not tantamount to pornography. They are lines on paper.”
Handley had no child pornography of any kind in his house or on his computer.
What disturbs me the most in this case is the implication that the government can decide whether or not it’s okay for you to have certain kinds of fiction in your home. Handley was not showing his “obscene material” to children. He wasn’t selling it to kids. He wasn’t distributing it. It was never meant for anyone but himself. The government pinned him with having the material shipped across state lines; it came from Japan. In America, the sexualization of teenagers seems to be as much of an everyday pastime as talking about how the sexualization of teenagers is wrong. We have television shows like Gossip Girl and 90210 and The Secret Life of the American Teenager which are about teenagers dating and having sex. Those shows aren’t obscene; they’re carried by cable into everyone’s home, where anyone could flip past them. So what makes it so different when a man buys a comic book and reads it in the privacy of his own home?
Again I ask: how is this endangering children?
What else is at risk here? Do I have to live in fear of the government coming to check out my collection of comic books because I subscribe to Playboy? Is it illegal to own classic adult comics like Omaha the Cat Dancer or anything by Robert Crumb? Are we back to the days of being fearful of owning a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover or Lolita?
I live in a country where just a couple of clicks on the Internet can bring me accidentally and horrifically to pages of porn videos involving minors or animals. Can’t the government work on stopping that from happening instead of making me wonder if my private thoughts or anything I might write down or draw could be turned into evidence of a crime that doesn’t exist? There are people out there who are actually sexually abusing minors. Why does the government waste its time going, yet again, after comic books that harm and exploit no one?
Does the law really need to waste its time protecting pretend minors?
Handley has pled guilty, mostly because he and his defense attorney, Eric Chase, are out of options. Chase admitted that he didn’t think the charge could be successfully countered because “It’s probably the only law I’m aware of, if a client shows me a book or magazine or movie, and asks me if this image is illegal, I can’t tell them.” He also said that he didn’t think a jury would be convinced to acquit when it saw the images in question.
Handley could go to prison because he owned something which he showed to no one that some person may have considered obscene had they actually seen it.
Be careful what you read, write and think about. You never know what might be construed as evidence for a crime you never committed.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.