Michigan restricts nude drawings

Free Press

A new law promoted as a way to keep porn magazines and videos out of sight of children went on the books today in the state of Michigan. Unfortunately, like most laws of this sort, it has potentially much broader consequences. The wording of the law could be applied to mainstream women’s and men’s magazines, R-rated movies, romance novels, clinical sex manuals, CDs… and comic books. Comics aren’t mentioned by name, but whether you call them magazines, books, or even pamphlets, they are (literally) covered by this law.

The law, known during its time in the legislature as H.B. 4360, requires that items containing “sexually explicit matter” have the bottom 2/3 of their covers hidden, or that they be placed in an “adults only” part of the store with restricted access. Store owners or managers who fail to do this could spend 93 days in jail and pay a $5,000 fine. Actually letting a minor examine the material is punishable by two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. (There are exceptions for parents, physicians, and - under some circumstances - librarians and educators.) It was passed without a single “nay” vote from either party, and Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who came to political prominence through her efforts as state Attorney General to protect children from sex-related dangers on the internet, signed it.

The law defines “sexually explicit matter” to include (among other things) “a book, magazine, or pamphlet that contains… a picture, photograph, drawing, [etc.] … that depicts nudity, sexual excitement, erotic fondling, sexual intercourse, or sadomasochistic abuse…” (emphasis added). Note that the nudity doesn’t need to be obscene, lewd, or provocative. Written materials have to contain “explicit and detailed” descriptions to be covered by this law, and written descriptions of mere nudity aren’t affected. But drawings don’t have that qualifier on them; all they have to do is “depict”, and “nudity” of any kind is sufficient. The thinly veiled sex scene in a recent issue of The Avengers could possibly qualify for this, Doc Manhattan paraded all through Watchmen fully naked, and certainly any number of Vertigo books have “depicted nudity”. Under the terms of this law, they should be placed in adults-only sections of the store, or kept behind the counter with 2/3-height boards over the covers.

One of the fundamental contradictions of this law is that it fails to take into account the adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. It screws this around in the opposite direction, by requiring the covers to be shielded based on the (not visible) contents of the book. For example, a hardcore porn magazine whose cover showed only a smiling, fully-clothed photograph of one of the models, would have to be blocked from the view of children. Meanwhile, a more provocative image on the cover of Maxim would be unaffected, since the material inside skirts just below the thresholds of this law. An amendment to change the focus of the bill from the content to what was apparent from the actual covers, was defeated.

This places an extra burden on shop owners, especially comics shop owners, who get a big batch of new mags to put on the shelves every week. They can’t just look at the covers to see what books they need to cover up; they need to check the contents of each one. And unlike the rules against selling explicit material to minors - which clerks could conceivably enforce as they ring up purchases, by paying special attention to the selections of children and teens, but just ringing up everything purchased by all the middle-aged men - this cover-covering assessment has to be done before the books are shelved. Or not shelved.

That’s the most likely outcome of all this. By making extra work for retailers, and requiring them to actually hide merchandise from customers (not just prevent children from looking through it), it becomes decreasingly profitable to carry anything with nudity in it. Which is, of course, the real objective of the law. If they were merely concerned about kids being casually exposed to sexual images - which is what the sponsors and the lobbyists behind it claim, and a reasonable goal - they would’ve limited the focus of the law to the covers.

Heck, most porn publishers already keep the front covers semi-nude at most (Playboy routinely looks more chaste than Cosmo), and the rest rarely get stocked outside of adults-only retailers. This “shield the kids’ eyes” rationale was merely an excuse to further restrict the sale of magazines, videos, etc. based on their content. And it gives yet another tool for prosecutors and citizen censors to use against freedom of the press for comics.

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