Our Nonexistent Liberties

Posted by on February 15th, 2010 at 4:30 PM

How the Gestapo Works in the United States of America

Do you know that you can be thrown in jail if your comics collection includes any pictures of young people—perhaps “children”; yes, some young people are young enough to be called “children”—in positions suggesting they are engaging in sexual activity or are about to engage in sexual activity? If you are a scholar studying various kinds of manga, you risk your liberty—particularly if, among the manga you are studying, there are lolicon, manga in which childlike female characters are depicted in an erotic manner. Pictures, perhaps, like these (click to enlarge):

In short, do you know that your private proclivities—if they have anything to do with sex—endanger your freedom? That you have, in effect, no privacy whatsoever? That is the lesson we must derive from the case of Christopher Handley, the 39-year-old Iowan with manga in his comic book collection, who was sentenced on February 10 to six months in jail and five years probation because someone thought a minute portion of his collection was “child pornography.”

The elements of Handley’s sentence were all agreed to by the defense and the prosecution in the plea bargain achieved last summer. Sentencing based upon these agreements just took place. Fortunately (wonder of wonders) there was no requirement in the sentence that Handley register as a sex offender, nor was there a requirement in the sentence that he stay away from children.

As reported at ICv2, the U.S. Attorney described Handley in his sentencing brief in a way that could probably describe many manga fans. “His primary means of social interaction with others has not been involvement in the community, but has been playing online role-playing games,” the brief said of Handley.

The prosecution argued that comics were worthy of the same prosecution as real depictions of sex acts involving children: “Some may argue that the crime at issue is not serious because no real children were involved. Such a viewpoint is short-sighted because it gives little weight to the nature of obscenity crimes, in general, and to the specific images involved in this case. A picture, proverbially, paints a thousand words, and there is no doubt that comic books, graphic novels, and works of manga and anime have a powerful ability to communicate through their use of dramatic imagery. Since the 1960s, the genre of comic books has been transformed from a target market of younger customers to a broad, word-wide market aimed at older, more mature consumers. The ground-breaking graphic novel, Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was even named by Time magazine of one of its top 100 novels of the 20th century. The power of the illustrated story should not be short-changed.”

The last sentences, ostensibly “explaining” how short-sighted it is to ignore drawings of sex acts involving children, does not, actually, explain any such thing. But it does reveal that the commercial and artistic success of comics as a literary genre has become, in the twisted mind of this legal pervert, a lever by which some unsuspecting citizen can be pried from his fundamental liberty. What kind of a country are we living in?

The defense counsel’s brief noted that no actual pornography was found in Handley’s home or on his computer, and that the lolicon material was “only a minute portion of his entire collection, which consisted of tens of thousands of manga and anime, representing all genres of the art form.”

In concluding its report, ICv2 quotes from the final paragraphs of the letter from Michael Snavely, Sr., a friend of Handley’s:

“Regarding this case, I am personally unable to understand the reasoning and justice behind the criminalization of the act of reading a comic book that contains objectionable sexual material. This is especially hard to understand when other more heinous material permeates our society and has not been criminalized. Murder, for instance, is glorified and portrayed with real humans in movies. If it is true that a person is likely to commit the crime of child molestation merely because that person has been looking at drawings depicting that act then why is it not a crime to watch movies or look at drawings of murder? Murder is considered a more serious crime, is it not? I fail to see the reasoning behind the criminalization of the lesser and not the more serious.”

You can’t see the reasoning because reason does not enter into such situations. Murder is not sex; but sex is sex. And sex, without much question, is responsible in this country for the propagation of more injustice per square foot than just about any other human knack with the possible exception of racism.

As a nation, we have a decidedly confused (perhaps insane) attitude about sex and obscenity. Our bewilderment is probably rooted in a misbegotten sense of morality fostered by our Puritanical religious heritage, which successfully proclaimed, without a basis in any fact about human nature, that sex is bad or nasty or wrong, somehow, which leads, inevitably, to the sort of confusion Butch Hancock, a songwriter, discovered as a boy growing up in Texas: “Sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love.”

Our attitudes are decidedly contradictory, as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt memorably points out: “Murder is a crime; writing about it isn’t. Sex is not a crime, but writing about it is. Why?”

Despite our aversion to sex in any form, we exploit our relentless interest in it. Said sociologist Philip Stater: “If we define pornography as any message from any commercial medium that is intended to arouse sexual excitement, then it is clear that most advertisements are covertly pornographic.”

Stephanie Black, head of marketing at the Playboy channel, adds: “On tv you can use sex to sell anything except sex.”

In our attitudes about sex, we are unique in the world, as Marlene Dietrich, an undeniable expert, observed: “In America, sex is an obsession; in other parts of the world, it is a fact.”

The law Handley was charged with breaking is a highly questionable matter itself. Section 504 of the PROTECT Act, designed to stop trafficking in child pornography, prohibits distribution or possession of “a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting” that “(1) shows a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; (2) is obscene; (3) depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Attorney Eric Chase, acting on behalf of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), which was serving as a special consultant in the case, successfully petitioned a district judge to rule the last two clauses unconstitutional because they restrict free speech. I fail to see how picturing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct (1) is any less a restriction of free speech than picturing a minor engaged in graphic bestiality etc. (3); it seems to me that if the last two clauses restrict free speech, so do the first two.

The dubious judicial determination here is an affront to common sense and probably indicative of the unconstitutionality of the entire law. But the judge let the first two charges stand, so Handley went to trial, charged with possessing an obscenity and/or a visual depiction showing a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund did not provide the defense for Handley, but was a special consultant to Handley’s defense team, providing access to First Amendment experts, recommending expert witnesses on manga, and funding expert research for an eventual jury trial.

“Handley’s case is deeply troubling, because the government is prosecuting a private collector for possession of art,” said CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein last spring. “In the past, CBLDF has had to defend the First Amendment rights of retailers and artists, but never before have we experienced the Federal Government attempting to strip a citizen of his freedom because he owned comic books.”

Putting the case into context, Burton Joseph, CBLDF’s Legal Counsel said: “In the lengthy time in which I have represented CBLDF and its clients, I have never encountered a situation where criminal prosecution was brought against a private consumer for possession of material for personal use in his own home.”

The gestapo may be knocking on your door next.

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8 Responses to “Our Nonexistent Liberties”

  1. Sean Robinson says:

    I’m not sure what the solution is to this other than a bunch of willing comic fans stepping up to the plate with some photos of themselves engaged in the act of reading some of the books listed in the court case. How many comic fans will they put away? Do we all need to live in Iowa to make this work?

  2. […] post:  Our Nonexistent Liberties Tags: calvin, comic, comic-strip, freedom, his-freedom, jumping, jumping-stuntman, sketches, […]

  3. […] 'Sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love'." [TCJ.com] Captain America […]

  4. Scyzoryk says:

    Where is “Lost Girls” in all of this? Are the righteous of Iowa aware that they have hundreds, possibly thousands, of child-porn owners living among them? As certainly the most high-profile comic to include graphic scenes of child sex, you’d think it could have been a powerful tool for the defense — especially if the CBLDF could have contacted a few celebrities or persons of authority with that particular book in their collection to testify.

  5. […] Harvey has a thoughtful (but NSFW) response to the prosecution and sentencing of Christopher Handley at The Comics Journal. Dru Pasagliotti […]

  6. […] Harvey has a thoughtful (but NSFW) response to the prosecution and sentencing of Christopher Handley at The Comics Journal. Dru Pasagliotti […]

  7. […] possession of pornography drives people to commit sex crimes – like commentors said here and here, then you’re beating up a strawman. We don’t know how much culture can influence […]

  8. WLLilly says:

    …Very chilling !