On the use of public office to suppress the display and sale of artistic works

Weeks ago, I heard about a controversy in Australia having to do with the sale of certain manga in the Sydney branch of Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain with locations around the world. Last July, South Australian state legislator Connie Bonaros made a complaint regarding volumes sold there, including such titles as Eromanga-sensei, No Game No Life, Sword Art Online, and Inside Mari, on the grounds that they violated Australian law regulating certain types of sexual artistic depictions. The exchange of letters between Bonaros and Kinokuniya officer Keijiro Mori can be found in the link above, but the gist seems to be that Bonaros thought some of the anime-styled girls in works that include sexual content looked like minors and came to the conclusion that their sale in Australia constituted a violation of the law.

If we talk about how horrible this is and have it banned from stores, people will definitely stop reading it! That has always, always worked.

I feel bad for Australian manga and light novel readers who were into those series, and especially for fans of No Game No Life, a few volumes of which received an outright sale/importation ban. It’s worth mentioning that we’re not even talking about some hentai doujins and manga you might find in the seedier shops in Akihabara; most of the affected series are massively popular and none are pornographic as far as I understand. It also seems weird that a South Australian state legislator can have any say at all over what books can be sold in Sydney, which is located not in South Australia but in New South Wales. That sounds to me something like a Virginia state senator getting books removed from a New York bookstore, which would be unthinkable here in the US.

But I’m not an expert in Australian law. In fact, I don’t really know anything about it except that the Australian constitution doesn’t contain an explicit protection for freedom of speech or expression. Since Bonaros is an Australian lawyer and I’m an American one, I’ll defer to her understanding of her own country’s law. I just hope fans and other artists in Australia can find a way to gain a stronger voice in politics.

All that said, I think the victory won by Bonaros has to be examined more closely. It raises a question that’s relevant to every fan of anime, manga, video games, literature, and art in general living in any country on Earth. That is: how far should a public official be able to use the power and influence afforded by their office to suppress the display and sale of an artistic work? Because that is apparently what Bonaros did. No legislation seems to have been proposed; no evidence was brought forward to show that the contents of the listed works actually violated Australian law (or if it was raised, it wasn’t mentioned in the reports I found.) And there’s certainly been no solid evidence brought forward that said works have a harmful effect on their readers or on society in general. It seems that Bonaros simply saw some manga that rubbed her the wrong way, used her platform as a legislator to complain about it, and successfully pressured Kinokuniya into removing it.

I can’t pretend that this incident in Australia doesn’t affect fans of manga, anime, or related works here in the States either. Because Bonaros also requested a list of other countries in which Kinokuniya still sells No Game No Life and the other titles she objects to, presumably including its American branches, and pressured the company to ban their sale globally.1 As a result, it’s now undoubtedly an issue for us Americans as well. And since she’s made it an issue for us, let’s have a look at US law to see whether or how such an incident might play out here.

Unlike my last couple of posts on this general subject, this time around we’re specifically concerned with the First Amendment. Here’s the original text in full:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty short considering how much has been said about it since it was ratified in 1791. And we’re only concerned here with the middle clause, and specifically with this statement: Congress shall make no lawabridging the freedom of speech.

It’s understood that artistic expression counts as “speech”, and this naturally includes manga (and visual novels, and drawings, etc.) However, that doesn’t mean these are all entirely safe from regulation. Congress has made laws abridging the freedom of speech since, but these were passed when the courts carved exceptions out of that guaranteed protection. An example of such an exception is found in the Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio2 (note: citations provided in the footnotes in case you want to look them up) in which the Court determined that the government could not regulate speech on the basis of violent or incendiary content unless it was 1) “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and 2) “likely to incite or produce such action.”

So it’s unconstitutional to arrest someone for throwing out extremist political views, for example, unless they’re actually stirring up a group to do some immediate violence or lawbreaking. It’s a very limited restriction but an important one — essentially, the Court has said that the government shouldn’t have the power to restrict this kind of speech unless it’s about to cause actual harm.

Artistic expression has also been restricted in limited ways and on similar grounds. Certain kinds of expressions that involve causing harm to others, for example, are rightly recognized as falling outside of the First Amendment’s protection. When the artistic expression in question doesn’t involve such harm, however — for example, when actors are depicted being harmed through the use of effects and studio tricks, or the expression consists of drawing or sculpture or some similar form — the standard for regulating the expression is far higher. Even if an artistic expression seems revolting, as long as it’s not found to be obscene or otherwise outside the protection of the First Amendment, it can’t be banned or suppressed through government action.

And the obscenity standard set by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California is extremely difficult to meet. Attempts at getting around this test through other sorts of official action have usually failed, as in the case of Bery v. New York,3 in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a government regulation requiring artists to be officially licensed to sell their work on public streets. Even if a regulation isn’t obviously intended to restrict freedom of expression, if it has that effect, it’s subject to the First Amendment and likely to be struck down in the same way.

However, let’s say that “official” government action isn’t being taken. What if, as in South Australia, some legislator stands up and simply talks about how bad some work of fiction is, how it’s degrading the morals of the people by its very existence, and how for those reasons Amazon should stop selling it? What if people petition Amazon on that basis and the company gives into public pressure and removes said work? In other words: can a public official legally use the power and influence of their office to skirt the First Amendment and have an artistic work suppressed without “making a law”?

Again, this is no hypothetical, because we’ve already seen it happen. I brought up several examples of such attempts at content-based regulation in another previous post. The most relevant here is the string of attacks on video games made by Congress in the early 90s, most famously against the Sega CD game Night Trap. Looking back, it seems strange that this FMV game was ever at the center of a controversy. Its contents are pretty tame, but some legislators spoke against it anyway, most notably former Senator Joe Lieberman, for containing gratuitous violence and lewdness. Following a congressional hearing in 1993 on the subject of video game violence (during which Lieberman admitted to never having actually played Night Trap) the game was pulled from distribution by major distributors and later pulled from the market altogether.

If it hadn’t been for that controversy, though, this game wouldn’t have gotten a rerelease/remaster on Steam, no way in hell.

The facts that the Sega CD was a marketing failure, and that by most accounts Night Trap was a lousy game, might have something to do with its pulling from distribution, but the influence of interest groups driven at least in part by public condemnation has to be considered. In my view, the use of a congressional hearing in this way taints the market and is an example of government overreach into the regulation of art. Lieberman’s view of Night Trap doesn’t seem very different from Bonaros’ view of No Game No Life and the rest of the manga on her list: both came to conclusions about the meanings and effects of the works seemingly without supporting evidence, and both ended up having an effect on the distribution of the work (in Bonaros’ case a much more direct and obvious effect, though.)

It seems this kind of government interference in art is hard to prevent even in the US, however; it’s happened so many times already (see also the Hays Code and the Parents Music Resource Center.) And there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again. At the moment, the US is going through a shitstorm for lack of a better term, or at least I can’t think of a better one to use, so people aren’t thinking too much about how music or video games are going to turn fans into degenerates or criminals. But that won’t last forever. One day when things are less chaotic, we’ll have another moral panic in which art is attacked as a way to avoid actually addressing societal problems. And since it doesn’t seem to be considered a violation of the First Amendment for politicians to use their influence to try to have works regulated or removed from sale, maybe the better question to ask at that point is: “Should they be allowed to do so?”

Let’s just do this again, why not.

Of course, my answer is “no.” The First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression loses some of its teeth when politicians are able to use the resources and influence of office to essentially get around it. Yet I don’t see a solution to that other than maintaining a culture of open and free expression. That’s a culture that has been under attack recently, especially with regard to anime, manga, and anime/manga-influenced games. We just have to remain vigilant as usual, calling out hypocrisy and scapegoating when we see it, and always in a civil but forceful manner.

I’ve lived in a country where the government had near-complete control over art and the press and where the dominant culture supported that control, and I can tell you it’s not fun. Many of the people who think they want that kind of power to be exerted against expression they don’t like here in the US might be in for an unpleasant surprise when they find works they like on the chopping block. But by then, if we ever get to the point where the First Amendment is so eroded, it will be too late to do anything about it.

So there’s my dire warning as usual. And as usual, I’m interested in other opinions. Do you have a different angle on these issues? Do you think Bonaros was right and justified in what she did? If you do, I don’t think we’ll find much common ground, but it’s still worth talking about. Maybe there were some important facts in that case that were glossed over or that I missed. Or maybe my own views on the issue as an American are considered weird in other countries. I know for a fact that’s the case, but that’s also part of why I came back here after all. 𒀭

1 Thankfully, Kinokuniya’s response to this request was: “In terms of our action globally, wherever our stores are situated we respect local law and culture, and make ordering decisions respectively and accordingly.” Which sounds like a diplomatic way of saying “mind your own damn business.”

2 395 US 444 (1969).

3 97 F.3d 689 (2d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 117 S.Ct. 2408 (1997). There’s an interesting note about the case here (a note being an article written by a law student in an academic journal — I wrote a note myself, but it was a piece of shit and rightly didn’t get published.) A good read if you’re interested in the subject.