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Criminal Charges Dropped for American Facing Year in Prison for ‘Obscene’ Manga Images

Criminal charges have been dropped against for Ryan Matheson, a 27-year-old comic book fan previously known as “Brandon X” who had been accused of possessing child pornography for carrying manga images into Canada that authorities found objectionable. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund announced today that the criminal charges were withdrawn as part of a plea deal that allowed Matheson to avoid trial by pleading to a “non-criminal code regulatory offense under the Customs Act of Canada.”

Matheson, a U.S. citizen, entered Ottawa on vacation with a laptop that contained comics images that Matheson described as “anime illustrations from art books” and “drawings of fictional anime and manga characters.” After a four-hour search of his iPhone, iPad and laptop by border authorities, a police investigator was summoned and Matheson was charged with possessing and importing child pornography. Based on the broad definition of child pornography in Canadian law, any illustrations that are thought to depict characters under 18 years of age in sexual situations may deemed child pornography if they are not believed to have a “legitimate purpose.”CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein previously discussed his knowledge of the comics content with Comic Book Resources last June:

My understanding with regard to the material at issue is that it includes fantasy comics drawn in a variety of manga styles,” he said in an e-mail to Comic Book Resources. “One of the items is believed to be a doujinshi, or fan-made comic, of the mainstream manga series ‘Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.’ Another is believed to be a comic in the original Japanese, depicting stick figure-like figures in various sexual positions. In all cases, the authorities are targeting expressive art and not any photographic evidence of a crime.

The arrest followed an advisory from the CBLDF about crossing international borders with comics art, and a border search of comics creators Tom Neely and Dylan Williams on their way to the Toronto Comics Art Festival, which ended with border officials confiscating a number of their comics.

In a personal statement on the CBLDF blog, Matheson detailed the indignities and poor treatment that can accompany being arrested and jailed, regardless of whether or not the charges involved are ultimately substantiated:

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!”

While Matheson maintains that “there was no evidence of any criminal activity or wrongdoing” and that his defense was “extremely strong,” he says he felt the potential consequences of fighting such a serious crime and losing were too great to risk. If convicted, he faced a mandatory minimum year in prison, registration as a sex offender in Canada and potentially the United States, not to mention the permanent social stigma that would accompany a conviction on charges related to child pornography.

Images that have literary or artistic merit are protected as free speech under U.S. law, and under Canadian law if they “have a legitimate purpose related to… art,” but whether a work is “obscene” or “artistic” tends to be subjective, and the implications of such charges ruinous. Christopher Handley, an American citizen who was charged with importing “obscene” manga into the U.S. in 2009, faced a similar situation, with the potential for 15 years in prison before he plead to a lesser charge and was sentenced to 6 months.

The costs of being charged with such a serious crime — both personal and financial — are also immense, even when a defendant avoids conviction. Total legal costs for Matheson’s defense topped $75,000, with the CBLDF contributing $20,000 and the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund contributing $11,000. The CBLDF is currently accepting further donations to help defray the $45,000 in costs borne by Matheson. As a computer programmer, Matheson was also significantly professionally limited by the terms of his bail, which curtailed his ability to use computer and the Internet, and even which companies he could work for.

Michael Edelson, a lawyer who worked on Matheson’s defense, warned CBLDF members and comic book fans about the dangers of bringing comics images into Canada, particularly content in an anime or manga style:

…your members should be cautioned concerning the search and seizure regime here in Canada exercised by the Canadian Border Services Agency. Moreover, they should also be aware that although anime and manga is legal in many areas of the United States and Japan, etc., to possess and utilize, the Canadian authorities may take a different view if this material is found on any laptops or mobile devices when you enter the country.

The dim view of manga content by Canadian border authorities is echoed in a disturbing 2006 blog post pointed out by Brigid Alverson, where a Canadian woman named Elizabeth McClung described her experience bringing manga across the Canadian border:

Saturday, I was surrounded by six officers, two watching me as the four others went page by page through my books looking for pornographic images and other evidence I was a sexual predator. How did this happen? I said a word which Canada Customs considers dirty: Manga. As soon as I declared that I had some of the japanese inspired comic books called manga, a Custom’s officer said, “That’s the stuff from Japan; there is some really obscene and filthy stuff.” No, I pointed out, these was printed in America and very mainstream. As more and more officers were called in, the six manga books I had were examined in detail. They were looking, they told me, for pornographic, obscene and adult material. “The age rating is on the back of each book.” (each manga book has ratings like 13+ or 15+ – mine were 13+). I was informed that I could have put different covers on or done anything else I could to get the pornography in and that if I spoke anymore, the books would be seized. So I stood there and watched my previously new books get examined page by page, thumbed through and pressed open because it was assumed if I read manga, that I was a sex offender.

For more information, read the ComicsAlliance article about protecting your comics at the Canadian border, the memorandum by Matheson’s legal team, and the CBLDF advisory for more information.

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