Going to Canada? Leave Your Comic Books at Home.


Last week the Canadian government dropped all criminal charges against Ryan Matheson, a 27-year-old American computer programmer who was arrested two years ago on his way to see a friend in Ottawa and charged with various child pornography offenses because he had Japanese comic book images on his laptop. Matheson was jailed for five days, during which police treated him as if he were child molester, and released with bail conditions that severely restricted his Internet use and his employment. He says the case against him "ultimately came down to two images: one was drawings depicting hand-drawn, manga-style fictional characters and the other was an image of an actual page from a manga." Rather than risk a mandatory minimum sentence and registration as a sex offender, Matheson accepted a plea deal shortly before his trial was scheduled to begin last month, under which he admitted to "a non-criminal regulatory offense that is part of the Customs Act of Canada, which was also subsequently discharged by the judge."

The Common Book Legal Defense Fund, which helped cover Matheson's legal expenses (kicking in $20,000 toward the $70,000 total), warns travelers that Canada has "an extremely broad definition of 'child pornography.'" It includes, for example, any "visual representation" that "shows a person who is or is depicted as being under the age of eighteen years and is engaged in or is depicted as engaged in explicit sexual activity" or "the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person under the age of eighteen years." As illustrated by Matheson's case, there need be no real children involved.

Under U.S. law, by contrast, child pornography has to include images of actual minors, since the rationale for prohibiting that particular category of material is to suppress the market for it and thereby prevent sexual abuse of children. Federal law does, however, include a constitutionally questionable provision that criminalizes not just production but mere possession of "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children." That provision can be used to charge people for possession of pornographic cartoons (featuring characters from The Simpsons, for example), provided the images feature children and qualify as "obscene" (whatever that might mean).

[Thanks to Franklin Carter for the tip.]