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Put down your pens: Cartoons next on censor block

Transatlantic campaign mounts against scribbled smut

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Comment Proposals to make it a criminal offence to possess cartoons depicting certain forms of child abuse are heading back to the House of Commons, and elsewhere in the UK and across the atlantic, it's becoming clear there is an appetite in certain quarters for a much wider clampdown on freedom of expression.

In the UK, debate on the cartoon law – ss49-55 of the Coroners and Justice Bill – took place a week ago. The bill, as it stands, would make it a criminal offence to possess (cartoon) pictures of children participating in sexual activities, or present whilst sexual activity took place. We did ask the Ministry for Justice whether this meant same frame, same page or even same story, but to date we have received no answer.

Shadow Minister for Justice Edward Garnier MP put forward what looked suspiciously like a wrecking amendment, proposing that the law focus on the publication or distribution of such material, rather than mere possession of it. As a QC, he is almost certainly aware that such actions may well already be covered by the Obscene Publications Act.

For the Lib Dems, Jenny Willott MP fought a valiant rearguard action against what she suspected were over-broad definitions of what constituted a child. In law, a child is anyone under 18: under the proposed law, if an image is ambiguous, it would be up to a jury to decide its "age".

She also asked for evidence that this law would actually decrease harm to children, rather than encourage paedophiles to switch back to real porn from the cartoon variety.

For the government, little ground was given by Maria Eagle MP, who sweepingly asserted that "child pornography is illegal in this country". Not quite. There are various laws governing indecent imagery, passed initially on the grounds of harm done to its victims: possibly this signals an intent that the police will follow up their hoped-for victory in the Girls Aloud obscenity trial – starting this week – by chasing down all stories with paedophile content on the net.

Meanwhile, Labour MP George Howarth provided an interesting insight in response to a question about someone scrawling some (obscene) lines on a piece of paper and throwing them away. He said: "If somebody is in the process of arousing themselves sexually by that process, it must be part of something. In a lot of cases, it will be part of something that will lead on to something else."

In Australia, it was a lewd drawing of the younger members of the Simpson family that got an individual into trouble. In Virginia, 20 "lolicon" cartoons led to a 20-year prison sentence.

The Reg spoke to Geoff Brownstein of the US-based Comic Book Legal Defence Fund (CBLDF). He is broadly of the view that those bringing forward this type of legislation do so from good intentions. However, they do not understand the medium and "wind up criminalising whole categories of protected speech and do not protect any real people".

He added: "Child pornography is photographic evidence of a crime, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to protect real children from being hurt. No real children are harmed in the creation and dissemination of art. Art can ask questions that raise awareness of juvenile sexual abuse, burgeoning adolescent sexuality, and other topics that are part of the human experience.

"Blanket prohibitions such as these US and UK laws serve to bury those questions, chill speech, and quash dialogue. More speech will protect more real people than less speech, which is why I believe these laws are well meant but woefully misguided."

This sentiment is echoed by the UK’s Comic Book Alliance. A spokesman for the CBA told the Reg: "It is clear that the originators of the Cartoon Bill have a particular highly offensive set of images in mind when they debate their proposals. But the proposals they have put forward will sweep up far more than the sort of imagery they intend to catch.

"In part this is due to a failure by government to consult with organisations that might have some interest in this issue – like the UK’s comic book publishing industry. Claims that no significant commercial interests would be harmed were based on absolutely zero research.”

A work that campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic agree is likely to be problematic is Lost Girls by Alan Moore, who is responsible for such mainstream works as Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta. Is such a creative genius also a child pornographer? Or is he, as CBLDF argue, "asking serious questions about sexuality"?

Author Neil Gaiman provides a broader perspective on the arguments involved here – but for him, the bottom line is clear. He writes: "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."

The gulf between the two sides on this issue is clear. Is the social harm caused by what some regard as a massive infringement on free speech justified by any real reduction in actual harm? The debate continues. ®

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