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CBLDF takes on new case: American traveler arrested in Canada for computer contents


Imagine traveling to another country and having your comic books and electronic devices seized. Then, you’re arrested because of the books you read. This may seem like a horror story, but for one comics reader, it’s come true.

Thus begins the story of one traveler. We make a lot of jokes about the US/Canadian border but as tales of the comics that were seized on the way to TCAF make clear, Canadians take their ideological border security seriously.

And one fan is paying the price. A US man in his mid-20s who was fluing to Canada to visit a friend had his computer searched and manga images on the computer were deemed to be child pornography. The charges against him could result in a year in jail.

While the name of the man and the images in question have not been released, this could be me or you.

In my years as a journalist. I’ve been emailed tons of stuff, found a ton of images on the web and downloaded them. The lines between pornography and a fun story for kids in Japan are poorly drawn, admittedly, and one man’s moë is another man’s filth. These images could be sitting there in some forgotten image folder, waiting to be found. They could be on your cel phone or your iPad, or your laptop, all of which can be searched at a border crossing. While child pornography is to be decried in all its forms, drawings, as repugnant as they may be, do not constitute an actual crime, any more than drawings of a murder constitute a killing.

The CBLDF has agreed to take on the man’s case — the defense is expected to cost $150,000 and has even been joined by the long dormant Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, a Canadian version of the CBLDF.

The story is getting much play on Twitter and blogs and more details are to come. Here’s the beginnings of how you can help. PR below.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund today announces that it is forming a coalition to support the legal defense of an American citizen who is facing criminal charges in Canada that could result in a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison for comics brought into the country on his laptop.  This incident is the most serious in a trend the CBLDF has been tracking involving the search and seizure of the print and electronic comic books carried by travelers crossing borders.

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “Although the CBLDF can’t protect comic fans everywhere in every situation, we want to join this effort to protect an American comic fan being prosecuted literally as he stood on the border of our country for behavior the First Amendment protects here, and its analogues in Canadian law should protect there.”

The CBLDF has agreed to assist in the case by contributing funds towards the defense, which has been estimated to cost $150,000 CDN.  The CBLDF will also provide access to experts and assistance on legal strategy.  The CBLDF’s efforts are joined by the recently re-formed Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund, a Canadian organization that will contribute to the fundraising effort.  Please contribute to this endeavor by making a tax deductible contribution here.

The facts of the case involve an American citizen, computer programmer, and comic book enthusiast in his mid-twenties who was flying from his home in the United States to Canada to visit a friend.  Upon arrival at Canadian Customs a customs officer conducted a search of the American and his personal belongings, including his laptop, iPad, and iPhone. The customs officer discovered manga on the laptop and considered it to be child pornography.  The client’s name is being withheld on the request of counsel for reasons relating to legal strategy.

The images at issue are all comics in the manga style.  No photographic evidence of criminal behavior is at issue.  Nevertheless, a warrant was issued and the laptop was turned over to police.  Consequently, the American has been charged with both the possession of child pornography as well as its importation into Canada. As a result, if convicted at trial, the American faces a minimum of one year in prison. This case could have far reaching implications for comic books and manga in North America.

The CBLDF’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to aid the case by raising funds to contribute to the defense and to help the defense with strategy and expert resources.

Brownstein says, “This is an important case that impacts the rights of everyone who reads, publishes, and makes comics and manga in North America. It underscores the dangers facing everyone traveling with comics, and it can establish important precedents regarding travelers rights.  It also relates to the increasingly urgent issue of authorities prosecuting art as child pornography.  While this case won’t set a US precedent, it can inform whatever precedent is eventually set.  This case is also important with respect to artistic merit in the Canadian courts, and a good decision could bring Canadian law closer to US law in that respect.  With the help of our supporters, we hope to raise the funds to wage a fight that yields good decisions and to create tools to help prevent these sorts of cases from continuing to spread.”

Find out more on the case here. To help support the case, you can make a monetary contribution here.


  1. I’m not sure how I feel in this one. On one hand they are drawings, not actual images or videos of disgusting child porn, but on the other, if you an exemptions, could it serve as a “gateway” to exempt other disgusting stuff?

    This issue is difficult to answer because do you want to allow child pornography in comics, or because they are “drawings” it is OK to print?

  2. Drawings are drawing, Jake. Pictures aren’t people.

    The concern about “gateways” goes the other way, even more strongly to my mind. If you’re going to outlaw drawings because you don’t like what they represent, shall we ban LIFE OF BRIAN because there were people who found it tasteless? Shall we censor THE SATANIC VERSES? “Other disgusting stuff” is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

    To quote Neil Gaiman, “Where do you stand on drawings of murders. Are they the same as murders?”

    Pictures aren’t people. Banning stuff because you find it icky is a massive and dangerous gateway to open.

    And artistic freedom shouldn’t only be about stuff we approve of. If we don’t defend the stuff we find offensive, too, then when someone else wants to ban stuff we approve of because they find it offensive, we’ve already lost.


  3. Hey Kurt, I’ve got a great idea for a comic. It’s called “Let’s Kill All The Jews, Queers And Niggers” Can you reccomend an artist to work on it with me?

  4. “Hey Kurt, I’ve got a great idea for a comic. It’s called “Let’s Kill All The Jews, Queers And Niggers” Can you reccomend an artist to work on it with me?”

    There’s a difference between supporting specific content and merely arguing that it should be legal. If someone published the comic from your straw-man hypothetical, I would not read it. But I also would not support it being banned by the government because that’s an infringement on free speech. I won’t speak for Kurt Busiek, but the larger point is that we shouldn’t tolerate censorship just because we consider the material to be in poor taste.

  5. Richard –

    I don’t know of anyone, no. And if you publish it, I don’t expect I’ll read it. But I’ll support your right to publish even work that I find skeevy as hell.

    The price of being able to say, “No, you can’t make ULYSSES or LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER or BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN illegal” is saying that you can’t make RICHARD WATSON’S HATE-O-RAMA illegal either. Freedom of expression doesn’t only cover expressions we already like.

    I’m sure there’s an artist out there for you, though — there’s a fair amount of writers who seem to want to write stuff like that, there must be artists who agree with them. A little networking ought to turn one up.


  6. So at the end of the day, let the consumer (us) determine whether we support it (buy) the product or not. I don’t like it, I’ll just ignore it on the book shelf.

  7. Works for me, Jake. I already do that with a lot of books anyway. But if the government steps in to decide what can’t be on the shelves in the first place, they may decide that stuff I’d want to buy isn’t acceptable.

    Governments have a fairly long history of doing that.

  8. I’ll draw it, Richard.

    Just for your information, Steve Seagle has a play entitled “N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK” (asterisks his) that is apparently really good and has something to say about race. Does your story have that?

    The point is, there might be something of value in it even if it is initially off-putting, and I’d like to be able to make that decision myself.

  9. Ahem. Now reading back on my message there, it reads like I’m saying that “I’d like to make my own judgment on Richard’s (nonexistent) racist script”. What I meant was that I’d like to make the judgment on any material and don’t need it to be censored for me.

    I don’t expect I’d actually want to spend any time reading something with such an asinine title.

  10. As a Canadian, my first thought was that the CBLDF doesn’t really have a case here because Canadian law equates illustrations with photographs. But after double checking (in fairness by “double checking” I mean “checking Wikipedia”) I noticed the catch “unless an artistic (see: artistic merit), educational, scientific, or medical justification can be provided and the court accepts it.”

    Hopefully the issue is as simple as pointing to the artistic merit and the case will be closed.

  11. Keyser, as a Canadian I disagree with this kind of border control as do many Canadians. Unfortunately, Canada has a Conservative government (voted only by 40% of the population) who pushes a “hard on crime” agenda so it’s not likely to change any time soon. The way that it’s set up, the security guard makes the call on what he/she thinks is offensive or is pornography. Many times it seems if they are unsure, they feel in order to be on the safe side to report and let the courts figure it out. Which is a pretty lousy way to run such a system.

  12. Unfortunately, Matthew, this type of incident — where Canadian Customs officials seize comics crossing the border because they were deemed pornographic — has happened many times over the last 25 years that I’ve been paying attention to these things. I remember one time it involved someone either shipping or bringing Crumb comics over.

    It’s interesting how we in America often assume that other Western democracies have the same free speech laws we do but it’s often not the case. As far as I know, in Germany and England you can be arrested for “hate speech,” which means you can do jail time or get a fine for yelling or writing racial or ethnic slurs. We’re lucky that here we have laws that back the idea that the way to deal with people’s words you find offensive is to counter them with your own message or words that speak to the other side of the argument.

  13. I can’t fathom a perspective on jurisprudence that says, “Let’s spend our public funds on putting a man in jail for a year because he was walking around with a comic on his personal computer.” For God’s sake, the stuff is available on the internet to anyone and everyone around the world. He could have just emailed the freakin’ thing if there was any intent to commit a crime. In the era of electronic files, such a thing is beyond unjust – it’s nonsensical.

    And I so adore Canadians in every other way.

  14. A drawing can’t be underage because a drawing doesn’t have an age. It’s not real. It’s an idea and to arrest someone for a concept is ridiculous. Literally no one gets harmed.

    And before anyone in the U.S. gets on their high horse with the Canada bashing. Yes this is outrageous but for the last decade you’ve been arresting people for a lot less and putting them away for as long as you’d like with no lawyers.

    Our governments do a lot of stupid things out of fear and pandering.

  15. This is not at all a case of Canada being worse than the US. Both countries are well above average in their protection of free speech, but both have serious defects in their laws, and seriouser defects in the enforcement of them.

    Real, live children must be protected from sexual abuse, even at substantial costs. Fictional people do not require protection, however.

  16. The U.S. government did criminalize virtual child pornography in 1996, but the Supreme Court struck down the Child Pornography Prevention Act in 2002. There has been some research, at least, into the question about whether the consumption of virtual child porn indicates a desire for actual sex or molestation. In Drawing the Line on Virtual Child Pornography, the two authors found:

    If legal policy were to be directly informed by the available scientific research, we believe that there is a convergence of findings from various sources to suggest that restrictions of virtual child pornography should take into consideration a person’s prior offense history. Both research with child molesters 293 and with men from the general population 294 support prohibiting the possession and use of virtual child pornography by those already convicted of child sexual molestation. Such restrictions are also consistent with previous legal practice that has severely restricted the rights of individuals convicted of criminal acts, with the unique treatment of propensity evidence in child molestation cases, and with laws aimed at preempting recidivist tendencies of previously convicted child sex offenders. In contrast, studies show little demonstrable risk for other individuals (including child-pornography offenders without a history of contact sexual offending) to commit future molestation pursuant to pornography consumption, and the data therefore do not at present support blanket prohibitions against the use of virtual child pornography.

    Other countries that ban virtual child porn presently are Germany, the U.K., Australia, and Sweden.


  17. Matthew, this has nothing to do with the current Conservative government. Canada Customs was given the power to determine what is obscene and to prevent it from coming into Canada a long time ago. Its something they take very seriously.

    There was a very long and highly publicized trial about it, involving a gay bookstore in Vancouver, and while the courts were critical of Customs handling of the matter, they upheld its authority.

    People have to realize that their country’s law–whether they are Americans, Canadians, or whatever–only apply within their own country.

    One way for publishers to avoid problems with Customs is to submit their material in advance, arguing for it artistic merit. Top Shelf did this with Alan Moore’s Lost Girls and Customs agreed that it does have artistic merit and let it be imported.

  18. Synsidar: Would I be correct in summarizing the above quote to say that: people who have previously abused children are encouraged by seeing child porn (real or fake) to do it again, but it doesn’t have this effect on people who – despite being interested – have kept their hands to themselves?

    If so, that makes a lot of sense. One has already decided to cross the line, so crossing it again is not a big deal. The other has already decided not to cross it, and isn’t likely to change their mind lightly.

  19. Would I be correct in summarizing the above quote to say that: people who have previously abused children are encouraged by seeing child porn (real or fake) to do it again, but it doesn’t have this effect on people who – despite being interested – have kept their hands to themselves?

    That’s how I’d interpret it. If someone is willing to molest children, viewing virtual child porn can encourage him to do it again. Otherwise, there’s not a significant risk. Unless governments in Canada, Sweden, etc., have research evidence indicating otherwise, they might, as they see it, be erring on the side of safety.


  20. Hello, thought police.

    If this was kiddie porn, even manga kiddie porn, it’s gonna be a hard sell, in terms of getting support from the comics community (IMO).

    OTOH, what Kurt said. You can’t criminalize possessing a –drawing–. Slippery slope alert. Each individual customs officer gets to decide what’s reportable? Eep.

    As someone who has colored comics that have very sexy ladies in them, some nude, I also agree w/ David B: folks traveling sometimes forget that they’re somewhere else & different rules apply.

    Driving across the US-Canada border to Toronto for a con, with obvious boxes of comics, my car was given a very thorough searching. On the way home, eh, not so much. Loooooove me some Canada/Canadians. Messed up customs situation, though.

    Will donate.

  21. By all means let all the hate groups print what they like. Its what makes America great; making whatever racist and sexist comment you want and then claiming freedom of speech.

    I wont be buying any more of your work Kurt. Not that theres been much of that lately, so you probably wont even notice.

  22. What I can never understand is how people can complain so easily about Jack Thompson’s social conservative diatribes about how violet video games and movies pervert youth into remorseless killers. Yet when people apply the same thinking to this lolicon manga crap, it gets applauded? I’m sorry, since when do we ban books and arrest their owners because we fear those books can cause someone to commit a crime? Do people not read 1984? Do people not read Ray Bradbury? That is the type of thinking that leads to fascism. You cannot live in a truly free state if it has laws like that.

    Not to mention that these stupid bans on cartoons obscure the real crime of real child pornography which involves the real abuse of real children. It is sick and disgusting that someone owning a comic book is equated to someone who owns evidence of actual child abuse. It really is like arresting someone for owning a copy of The Basketball Diaries or Natural Born Killers or the videogame Doom as if they have or will commit the actual acts depicted therein.

  23. I was crossing the border to the States and got pulled over. Had some of my mini comics with me and thumbing through one the guard asked, “Why are you bringing pornography into the U.S.?”
    The reason was one character said the word, “Fuck”. I told him that wasn’t porn it was just a character swearing. He told me, “It’s porn if I say it’s porn.”
    That’s the rule, the guard is the law and his/her personal tastes decide your fate. It’s just as bad going into the States as it is coming into Canada.

  24. I’m with Kurt. You can’t even ban hate speech. If specific threats are made, that’s another issue. Yet you can’t fight the speech of hate by making it illegal. That just drives the garbage underground and makes it harder to find those sick bastards. Let them spew their hateful speech at us. We will combat it with our own powers of free speech and knowing that understanding and tolerance will beat them in the end. We do no need to enact laws to put them in jail. That just makes them seem like they are persecuted by the state for their speech.

  25. RE: Sansha–

    “By all means let all the hate groups print what they like. Its what makes America great; making whatever racist and sexist comment you want and then claiming freedom of speech.”

    Sarcasm noted. But also noted is your inability to grasp the value of freedom of speech. The value is not just granted to the speaker, who can say whatever he wants, but more specifically and more importantly, it is granted to the LISTENER, who can trust his own judgment and intelligence when making decisions on what he believes and disbelieves.

    I trust my own mind, my own beliefs, my own morality, and my own intellect far more than I trust lawmakers, clipboard-bearing political volunteers, or for God’s sake a border guard.

    So yeah, I’ll claim “freedom of speech” here, and if that offends you, please don’t waste your money on my comics, either. They aren’t for you.

  26. >> By all means let all the hate groups print what they like. Its what makes America great; making whatever racist and sexist comment you want and then claiming freedom of speech.>>

    It is, in fact, one of the things that makes America great. Because if the government can ban speech we don’t like, then they can ban speech we like. So to keep them from being able to do that, we defend it all.

    The answer to speech we don’t like is more speech, not censorship.

    >> I wont be buying any more of your work Kurt. Not that theres been much of that lately, so you probably wont even notice.>>

    I hadn’t actually noticed you buying it in the first place, but that’s sort of the way the marketplace works. In any case, if you don’t want to support the work of someone who thinks “free speech” doesn’t only apply to stuff you approve of, then by all means, that’s your choice. I’ll be in very good company, though, from Neil Gaiman to George Washington, from Voltaire to Stephen King to Judy Blume and many, many more. Your shelves may wind up pretty bare.


    “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” —George Washington

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” —Voltaire

    “If you accept — and I do — that freedom of speech is important, then you are going to have to defend the indefensible. That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said.” —Neil Gaiman

    “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” —Noam Chomsky

    “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.” —Benjamin Franklin

  27. @Sansha Lorick

    If anything, I’d think Kurt B. would be HAPPY to know that people as ignorant as you wouldn’t be interested to buy his work.

    There are plenty of other countries in the world you can move to that will be happy to censor what you say and think. Of course, you’d most likely be the first one to complain (and be jailed) if that country didn’t quite agree with the way you see things…

  28. Bravo Kurt! I’m sure you’ve picked up a number of new fans on this thread.

    BTW I found “Richard Watson”‘s post very offensive and reported it to the Hate Crimes division at the international Cyber-crimes unit at Interpol. I hope he doesn’t live in Canada…

  29. While I support your right to misquote Voltaire, I will defend to the death my right to correct you.

    Voltaire never said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” despite being one of the most used quotes on the Interwebs.

    That’s actually taken from The Friends of Voltaire written in 1906 by S. G. Tallentyre.

    While Voltaire may have shared this belief, he never said it.

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