San Diego Comic-Con 2011
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Can Comics Send You to Jail?

by Gia Manry,

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's panel opened with the passing around of pamphlets titled "They're Not Just Looking for Bombs Anymore," whose cover image included a picture of a clearly manga-inspired schoolgirl with her panties showing. The inside of the pamphlet included a donation/membership form, information on the memberships, and a page devoted to discussing the current case of an American man who has been charged for possession and importation of child pornography in the form of manga on his computer.

Charles Brownstein moderated the panel, which also included CBLDF co-founders Derek McCulloch and Leonard Wong. He introduced the creation of the fund, so named because it was aimed at supporting a comic store owner who was charged with distributing obscene materials (adult comics) in 1986. This panel, however, will focus on the story of "Brandon" (not his real name), a man who went to visit a friend in Canada and had his materials searched when entering the country— customs officers don't need probable cause to search people. The officers found a handful of images from Japanese manga that they thought was suspicious. They sent the images to their supervisor, who sent it to his boss, who decided that the materials could be child pornography and sent the issue to Canadian courts. Brandon is now facing the possibility of serving a year in prison and registering as a sex offender due to his possession of the art.

Brandon approached the CBLDF after he realized that he could not afford the lawyer he'd found in Canada. The CBLDF agreed that the accusations were unjust and agreed to help fundraise and support Brandon's defense. However, Brownstein pointed out that Brandon's is not an isolated incident, stating that border guards are increasingly concerned with comics materials; he also referenced the seizure of materials on their way to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May. Brownstein proclaimed that the guards are supposed to be searching for items that can harm people, such as weapons and drugs, but the focus on art has been increasing instead.

McCulloch and Wong then spoke about the organization's past victories and failures, including an awkward phone call with a lawyer whose clients chose to plead guilty, resulting in the CBLDF not continuing to support the clients' legal matters (the CBLDF is, as Wong put it, a "defense" fund). McCulloch noted that border guards have very broad powers and little or no training in dealing with art, making their power over imported materials troubling.

Wong, a Canadian citizen, revealed that Canadian border guards are specifically trained to search for certain produce, weapons, drugs, and pornography. However, that training takes about a day before the officers are sent to work the crossing, and that there are no strict standards. He also noted that certain adult publishers will not sell books to Canadian stores because it's simply too much work. (He noted that Top Shelf submitted their book Lost Girls, which contains adult materials, in advance to ensure that customs would clear it.) People who are held back at customs also may not know what their rights are in Canada.

The CBLDF is now seeing the moral fear of "obscenity" transform into the fear of child pornography, images that depict the actual abuse and exploitation of children, according to Brownstein. People charged with these materials often have their lives ruined by the sheer association, even if they are not found guilty. Brownstein suggested that the government should not be able to say that an individual who has not been known to harm any other people should not be prohibited from finding the art that interests them.

After being prompted by an audience question, Brownstein stated that child pornography is photographic evidence of a specific crime, and that "virtual child pornography" is a term used to "muddy the issue," that there is no accepted study revealing a causal relationship between consumption of such "virtual" kiddy porn and the abuse of actual minors. The United States Supreme Court determined that "virtual child pornography" is not considered child pornography (in the Ashcroft vs Free Speech Coalition decision) unless it is also obscene— it has to pass the three-prong Miller test, being patently offensive by local standards, lacking in any other merit, and whether it depicts activities outlined in state guidelines.

Brownstein then brought up the Christopher Handley case, in which Handley was prosecuted for ordering adult doujinshi from Japan. Handley, who lived at home to take care of his mother, had two passions, Brownstein revealed: manga and bible study. However, postal inspectors opened Handley's package and determined that the material he'd ordered was child pornography and arranged for a sting operation. The materials were sent on to Handley, who was followed by police and subjected to search and seizure. The books included both the erotic horror genre and the lolicon genre, Brownstein stated, and Handley's counsel asked for assistance recruiting expert witnesses for his defense. The CBLDF recruited and hired some of those witnesses, but then before the trial, Handley decided to plead guilty to possession of child pornography.

In the decision, the government acknowledged that Handley is not a threat to his community and that he has never harmed anyone as far as could be proven, but that the possession of those materials was still illegal. Brownstein called Handley's plea "frightening" but understood his fear of the minimum sentence if he was convicted of obscenity.

An audience member noted that in many cases the possession of obscene materials is in fact legal (according to the Stanley v Georgia case), but the transfer of said materials is illegal. Brownstein referred to the issues as "thought crime." Another audience member asked about the city of Tokyo's new law regarding the sale of adult materials to minors, but Brownstein declined to opine.

One attendee asked about lobbying and other political activities, but Brownstein said that the CBLDF is not permitted to participate in such activities but is partnered with the Media Coalition, which does. McCulloch noted that the CBLDF has been largely dormant for the last twenty years and is just now in the process of officially registering itself as a charitable fund in Canada. McCulloch does not know Canadian laws about non-profit organizations participating in lobbying, and Wong noted that lobbying is not as common or organized in Canada. The CBLDF is currently trying to spread the word about the fund and partner with other organizations.

In response to a question about whether border guards can compel people to provide their passwords in order to access materials; Brownstein stated that there is sophisticted software for detecting such materials nowadays.

One attendee recounted that several years ago, the San Diego police department arrived at Comic-Con and made a fuss about adult materials, resulting in such acts as grouping adult booths together and ribbons covering bare breasts in the convention's art show. Another attendee expressed concern over warrantless search of smartphones, resulting in Brownstein stating that awareness is a key part of the CBLDF's mission, so that citizens can speak out against the issues they disagree with.

Brownstein closed the panel by suggesting the attendees educate themselves and each other by visiting the organization's website.

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