Wednesday, 29 May 2013

More on the censorship bill

So Parliament is debating legislation that would let the government put you in jail for longer for possessing objectionable materials. You'd think this would mean that they have some authoritative list of what's banned and that they'd keep it up to date so that if standards change over time, you couldn't be hauled in for something that was objectionable in 1960 but would be considered tame today.

Well, no.

I'd noted a few problems here. No Right Turn lists a few more; he also points to one list of banned books. If you do a full text search, "Marijuana" shows up 33 times in the list of 1310 books. Six books about growing psilocybin mushrooms are also prohibited. A bunch of books about lesbians are prohibited; it's hard to tell whether those books are banned because they include depictions of children, other currently prohibited content, or whether somebody in the 1960s reckoned lesbianism was objectionable per se. A lot seem to be hangovers from days of yore.*

On that list is "Fanny Hill". I'd noted that one previously and emailed the Censor's Office about it. Here's the state of play. 
Dear Eric

Thank you for your emails.

The 1981 decision of the Indecent Publications Tribunal classified a paperback edition of Fanny Hill as Indecent, meaning its current classification (under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993) is Objectionable. You are correct in your reading of the Gazette entry, that this decision applies to the illustrated edition which contains sexual photographs and in the words of the Tribunal ‘appears to be little relationship between the text and the photographs’. This classification decision remains in force. The Gazette entry is the extent of the information we have on record for the Tribunal’s classification decision.

The 1965 decision classifying a paperback edition of the book Fanny Hill: The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure as restricted to those aged 18 and over also remains in force.

The Classification Office is not undertaking a project of reclassifying historical decisions. Should a person wish to have classification decisions such as these revisited, they would need to apply for a reconsideration of the decision under section 42 of the FVPC Act.

A classification decision on a publication, by either the Indecent Publications Tribunal or the Office of Film and Literature Classification, applies to identical versions of the publication. For example, it would be in breach of the classification to import, possess, or distribute the banned version of the book (as classified in 1981), including possession or distribution online. The Classification Office is not responsible for enforcing the classification law – this is done by enforcement agencies such as Police, Customs and the Department of Internal Affairs. We encourage people to contact us if they’re uncertain about the legal status of a publication they wish to access.

I hope this information is of use to you – please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.
So the Censor's Office has prohibited one photographically illustrated edition of Fanny Hill. But, it does not know which one, except that the photographs have the models in period costume and that the photographs have little relationship to the text. Maybe there is only one edition published prior to 1982 that fits that description. Maybe there are dozens. You can get up to 10 years in jail, under Judith Collins's bill, if you have the wrong one.

An illustrated Fanny Hill, even if it contains no photographs of children, could be considered to meet the new Section 132B(2) definition of "describing, depicting, or otherwise deal[ing] with sexual conduct with or by children, or young persons, or both". The text describes a girl in her mid-teens. And while the text itself is not forbidden, an illustrated version could be: Japanese comic books are banned for depictions. Repeat offences under this provision carry the presumption of imprisonment and up to 10 years in jail.

And just look at Section 124A(1).
A person of or over the age of 16 years is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years if he or she intentionally exposes a person under the age of 16 years (the young person) to indecent material (whether written, spoken, visual, or otherwise, alone or in combination) in communicating in any manner, directly or indirectly, with the young person.
The preamble says that this is to prevent adults from sexually grooming children. I'm no lawyer, but it looks like it also can throw you in jail for 3 years if you're 16 and show something to your 15-year-old friend.

The Select Committee has a lot of work to do on this one.

* Here's Censor R.S.V. Simpson's decision from 1972 on the book "Portrait of a Lesbian", by Samantha Golden. It's currently listed as a collectible by Amazon.

The first-named 11 books [including Golden's] can be grouped together. There are some minor differences of quality among these books. What they share is the intention of exploiting morbid sexual interest through the fictional portrayal of various forms of sexual activity.
They demonstrate in their grossly exaggerated incidents, their exclusion of any experience that is not sexual, their reduction of human relationships to the juxtaposition of organs and their crude, repetitive language, the worst kind of commercial pornography. No book in this group has any element that would require qualification of the view the Tribunal takes of them as blatantly indecent.
The Tribunal classifies these books as indecent.
There are plenty of things on the current list of banned books that simply should not be there. They're relics of a time when homosexuality was illegal. Increasing the penalties for possessing works classified as Objectionable has to go hand-in-hand with a purging from the list of works that should not be there.


  1. In the context of Section 132B(2), what does "young person" mean?

  2. Let's not forget such classics as "Why Was He Born So Beautiful and Other Rugby Songs". There are also quite a few old pulp paperbacks on the list which wouldn't even raise an eyebrow today, such as the respected science fiction writer Barry Malzberg's "Screen".

  3. It has to not only depict but also encourage. So they've already ruled that the text of Fanny Hill is fine. But another edition of Fanny Hill, that included photographs that may or may not have been of youths, is banned. The Censor's Office also notes that it is entirely possible to be charged for possession of banned materials that have not yet been banned: anything meeting the conditions for banning is banned, whether or not it has yet been declared banned. And that makes sense for photos of 8 year olds being abused because there's no way that some agency would have a comprehensive list of the things. But it's freaking rotten when it comes to books.

  4. "Encourage" would very much seem to be in the eye of the beholder, no?