Escape from Canada's Manga Censorship Dungeon

Last summer, civil liberties groups Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund helped defend Ryan Matheson, an American citizen who faced a year in Canadian prison for possession of child pornography. Why? The charges against the 27-year-old software engineer had come via Canadian customs officers who found manga on Matheson's laptop. At last, Matheson's ordeal is over after the Canadian prosecutors withdrew all criminal charges as part of a plea bargain agreement.

Matheson, an anime and manga fan and "amateur artist focusing on Japanese anime characters" has written a personal statement about his experiences on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CLBDF) blog. His planned five-day visit to a friend in Ottawa was his first trip outside the US, and when Customs officials asked for access to his computer, "I knew I didn't have anything to hide, so I willingly gave them my password."

A succession of Canadian Border Services Officers, beginning with one Officer Tremblay, looked through his files and found an image of a moe style parody of the shijûhatte, the "48 positions," a Kama Sutra-style Japanese sex diagram (originally itself a parody of a diagram of sumo wrestling techniques). The BSO agents called Detective Maureen Bryden of the High-Tech Crime Unit and presumably described the image over the phone, after which Bryden "advised that the images would constitute child pornography and directed that the subject be arrested."

Matheson was taken into custody and kept overnight in a cold cell without food, blankets or pillows and "a slab of concrete" as a bed. When he asked to contact the US Embassy, guards ignored him. He was later transferred to a long-term detention center, where he stayed for five days until his bail was posted, and where guards teased him with "Since you're going into protective custody, that must mean you've done something bad, right, something child related?" and "If you get raped in here, it doesn't count!" After he was released, his bail conditions forbid him from using computers or the internet outside of his work, as well as forbidding him from switching jobs.


The prosecution's case for child pornography would apparently have been built on the "48 positions" page, as well as scans of Mahô Shôjo Ririnana, a Mahô Shôjo Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS dojinshi anthology also found on Matheson's computer, among other anime and manga files. According to Charles Brownstein executive director of the CBLDF, "I am still working to locate the exact page in question (not all the evidence has been returned yet, and who knows what condition Ryan's computer will be in when it is), but we believe it depicts the fictional characters Reinforce, a 900-year-old computer program that is about a foot tall, and Vivio, a non-human shapeshifting magic creature who takes on a variety of female forms in a story that ends in a sexually explicit fashion." (The Nanoha art in this article is generic artwork, not from that specific dojinshi.)


Shortly before the February 2012 trial date, the charges were dropped. Charles Brownstein, executive director of the CBLDF, said in an interview with The Comics Reporter that the breakthrough in the case was a change in prosecutors, as well as a strong defense from the legal team — Michael Edelson and Solomon Friedman of Edelson Clifford D'Angelo LLP — that the new prosecutor may have thought hard to beat. The defense begins with the argument that the Canadian customs officers overstepped their roles and acted as agents for the local police force, never telling Matheson when his routine customs search became a criminal investigation. Edelson also invoked free speech and cruel and unusual punishment, to quote from the Charter Notice:

"He had his liberty restrained (and still does because of his bail conditions). He had his private property taken. He had his hard drive, which contained intimate details of his life, searched relentlessly. He was made to feel physically uncomfortable and then psychologically threatened in a foreign country with no access to his embassy…

"The images in question do not depict real people. They do not depict real children. They are fictional comic characters. Society's interest in seeing Mr. Matheson stand trial for the possession of these images, after the way he has been treated, is minimal at best. The images in question do not offend moral sensibilities the way real depictions would, nor is there danger or risk posed to children.

"Given the way that the Applicant has been treated, the conclusion necessarily follows that the admission of any evidence obtained after his referral to secondary inspection would tend to bring the administration of justice into disrepute."


The defense also compared the search of Matheson's hard drive to an unlawful strip search:

"There is little doubt that the search of one's personal computer falls within the same level of intrusiveness as a strip search of one's physical person, because in contemporary times a person's computer will envelop their 'digital life.'"


As a result of the plea bargain agreement, Matheson pled to a non-criminal regulatory offense under the Canadian Customs Act; that offense was also discharged by the judge, and the case will not stand trial. The CBLDF's full press release is here, including legal documents submitted by Edelson's defense.


Since the case did not go to trial, no legal precedent was set. Brownstein defended Matheson's decision not to go to trial, pointing out that although the defense's case was strong, all trials are inherently risky, and in a trial Matheson would have risked a mandatory one year in prison plus registering as a sex offender. In his personal statement, Matheson himself argues for free speech:

"This case was important to me. Japanese animation and manga are something I hold precious. I first got into anime when I was about eight years old by watching Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z that aired on TV at the time.…To have this healthy and fulfilling hobby of mine deemed "unfavorable," "deviant" or "criminal" by ignorant government officials is insulting and degrading not only to me, but also to the millions of fellow fans who take part in enjoying this art. After going through such a challenging and difficult period of my life, my own convictions about what anime and manga mean to me have become stronger than ever before.

"Others like me that are interested in comics, manga and anime should become informed about this important issue and stick together. Some people may be tempted to say things like, "Well, I don't like that type of manga" or "That doesn't bother me-I've never read that title," but you should step back and take a look at the big picture. The law shouldn't be based on what you like or don't like. The people should have their own choice to pursue what they like and avoid what they don't like. When overzealous governments try to unjustly attack comics and manga, they are attacking all of literature and art as a whole. Free speech should be absolute, not a pick-and-choose sort of thing. This is a very important right that we enjoy every day and we need to stand up for ourselves and protect it!"


In short: thanks to a strong legal defense and sticking to his guns, Matheson is cleared of charges, but Canadian customs is still infamously intrusive, prudish and unaccountable to the public, recently condemning and confiscating not only extraterrestrial shapeshifting ageplay dojinshi but also The Snuff Taker's Ephemeris, a magazine about snuff tobacco (it had a nude painting in it); Black Eye, a black humor comics anthology; and Miki Aihara's ages-13-and-up Tokyo Boys and Girls (customs officer: "That's the stuff from Japan; there's some really obscene and filthy stuff!").


Matheson's ordeal is over, well, mostly: he's still $45,000 in the hole for legal charges related to his defense, despite the CBLDF and CLLLF raising over $30,000 for his case. Make a contribution at Considering Matheson's passionate statement in his defense, I can't help but think he'd also make a good speaker on censorship issues, if any anime convention this summer is looking for a guest.

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