When Comics Are Outlawed, Exactly Who Is Safer?

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In 2003, Congress outlawed drawings, cartoons, and sculpture depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit acts, if a local jury found that it lacked “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

You may not know that. But Christopher Handley, a 39-year-old Iowa office worker knows it now. He just pled guilty to owning some Japanese manga—comic books—with drawings of children being sexual with children, adults, and animals. He faces as much as 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine. His life is ruined.

There was no allegation that he owned “child pornography,” no allegation that he ever touched a child sexually.

He was charged with, and pled guilty to, “Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.” Not photos of real children. Not computer morphs or simulations that look like real children. Cartoons. Line drawings.

The case started when customs officials intercepted and opened a package from Japan addressed to Handley. They found cartoon drawings of minors engaged in sexual acts. This material, along with the rest of the genre, is huge in Japan. Handley is a prolific collector of manga; not just “this type,” said his lawyer; “he collected everything that was out there.”

To get really creeped out, read the plea agreement. And say goodbye to Handley, the first person to be convicted for possessing cartoon art.

How did drawings of cartoon kids being sexually exploited by cartoon adults or cartoon animals become illegal in the U.S.? It’s an interesting—and important—story.

In 2002, the Supreme Court overturned the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. The law had, among other things, criminalized virtual child pornography. So in 2003, Congress passed the PROTECT Act. To get around the Supreme Court’s support for the Constitution, Congress created a sub-category of speech that does not have First Amendment protection: drawings of childhood sexuality that a jury deemed obscene.

By excluding material that had “serious value,” the law could stand. But we continue to see that this exclusion is shaky and undependable. Convene a jury of people who are angry, ignorant, frightened, or very religious, and the concept of “serious value” wilts away—Shakespeare, Picasso, and manga be damned. Handley’s lawyer recommended the plea agreement because he feared the jury wouldn’t acquit his client.

Child pornography laws—including the PROTECT Act—are meant to protect children. Real child porn is the documentation of a crime, the sexual exploitation of children. Who is being protected by eliminating drawings of children being sexual—whether the kids are drawn smiling or terrified?

Laws like these soothe adult consciences, comfort adult rage, and grant the illusion of adult power. By siphoning precious law enforcement resources, they make actual children less safe, not more.

America is developing a new class of political prisoner: those who think thoughts about sex and children that are judged evil. When you consider that only 25 years ago these thoughts were not unthinkable, you have to wonder: what thoughts about sex do you have today that will one day be declared legally unthinkable?

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