Manga Collection Ruled "Child Pornography" By US Court

An Iowa man was convicted of possessing child pornography last week because some of the books in his vast collection of Japanese manga (comics) appeared to depict minors engaged in sexual acts. How exactly can a court determine whether a comic book character is a "minor" or not?

39-year-old Christopher Handley, an office worker, was brought up on charges of possessing child pornography in 2006 when customs officials seized a package for him. It contained several manga, some of which were "lolicon" that showed what officials said were children being sexually abused. There were also images of bestiality. Handley has a huge collection of manga, and only a few are lolicon. He also had absolutely no child pornography of any description in his house or on his computer.

Nevertheless, Handley entered a guilty plea. According to Threat Level, it was simply because his attorney had exhausted all other options:

"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," says Eric Chase, Handley's attorney.

Chase says he recommended the plea agreement (.pdf) to his client because he didn't think he could convince a jury to acquit him once they'd seen the images in question. The lawyer declined to describe the details. "If they can imagine it, they drew it," he says. "Use your imagination. It was there."

The manga collector faces up to 15 years in prison for possessing comic books.

Handley is the first person to be convicted under the controversial Protect Act, which makes drawings of fictional characters into potential child pornography. How did this happen?

In 2002, the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Morphing Law, which held that fictional cartoon or photoshopped images depicting minors having sex would would also be treated as obscene (Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition). Under that decision, last week's conviction of Handley could not have happened. But in 2003, the Protect Law passed, which held that "a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting" showing children in sexual situations could be ruled illegal if local community standards consider it "obscene." This is particularly relevant given that Handley was tried in an area, Southern Iowa, where average community members may not be aware of the styles and content of typical manga.

In the United States, the original intent of the child pornography laws was to protect children from sexual abuse. The idea is that when actual, living children (not images of them) participate in the making of sexual images, they are harmed. The US Supreme Court heard a case in 1982 (New York v. Ferber) whose outcome, in short, made any sexual images containing minors obscene and illegal - even if those images had redeeming social value. New York v. Ferber did not cover fictional images, only photography and film which involved actual children.

The Protect Act dramatically expands the scope of laws permitted under Ferber. But will actual children be protected by sending a man to prison for collecting fictional comic books?

As Comic Book Legal Defense Fund executive director Charles Brownstein put it:

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.

via Threat Level

NOTE: Image above comes from the manga/anime Oh! My Goddess, a typical children's title. It is not considered Lolicon.