Wednesday 22 January 2014

Making an ass of the law

From the Classification Office's Board of Review's* recent decision regarding "Into the River", a teen-lit book.* Not just any teen-lit book - the one that won last year's New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year prize and topped the Young Adult Fiction category.
The book's plot:

The novel is centred on Te Arepa Santos, a boy from a fictional village on the East Coast of the North Island in New Zealand/Aotearoa. He wins a scholarship to a boys’ boarding school in Auckland, and the transition is difficult. He forges friendships, finds enemies, and discovers that his Maori identity is discounted and a disadvantage. He endures the bullying that comes from this, as well as that meted out to new boys, and sees what happens when that bullying goes too far. There are confusing encounters with sex and a growing understanding of intimacy, the use of drugs, peer pressure, deep racism, grief and death.

Decision summary

The Film and Literature Board of Review noted in its decision that the book contains themes of bullying, underage casual and unsafe sex, drug taking and other matters that people may find offensive and upsetting. The Board considered that the book is likely to educate and inform young adults about the potentially negative consequences that can follow from involvement in casual sex, underage drinking, drug taking, crime, violence and bullying. The Board also considered that the book serves a useful social purpose in raising these issues for thought and debate and creating a context which may help young adults think more deeply about the immediate and long term consequences of choices they may be called upon to make.

However, there are scenes in the book that are powerful and disturbing, and in the opinion of the Board run a real risk of shocking and disturbing young readers. Whilst those aged 14 and above are likely to have a level of maturity that enables them to deal with this, those below the age of 14 may not. The Film and Literature Board of Review classified the book as objectionable except if the publication is restricted to persons who have attained the age of 14 years. The Board also requires that any further publications of the book carry the same descriptive note as the present publication, reading "parental advisory explicit content".

What does this decision mean?

The Board of Review decision replaces the one by the Classification Office. It is illegal for anyone, including parents and guardians, to supply Into the River to anyone under the age of 14. [emphasis added]
I can understand rules barring sale of potentially disturbing books to youths. I wouldn't necessarily support those rules - it would depend on the book - but I could understand them. Barring parents, who know more about their children than the New Zealand Censor ever will, from giving a book to their child? I'm having a much harder time than usual in avoiding expletives in this post. I usually only have to delete two or three. This time, well, it was more. Our insane classification system has made it illegal for a parent to provide to his 13 year old the book that won "Best Young Adult Fiction" prize last year. Sure, the judges at the prize competition noted that the book was aimed at kids aged fifteen and up. But kids vary considerably in maturity - this totally has to be a parent's call.

I doubt that any parent has ever been prosecuted under this provision. But it's laws like this, that make criminals of all of us, that make an ass of the law.

How much of an ass? Here we go. Let's start with age-restricted film categories. RP means that you can only watch with a parent or guardian if you're under the stated age. We'll leave those to one side. All those decisions were just "Hey, we think that kids under this age shouldn't be watching this stuff, but it's up to you as parents", and that's totally cool. And I could even imagine it being helpful. But let's look at only the ones where it is illegal for a parent to give the kid a copy of the BluRay and watch it with him, if the child is below the stated age.

Illegal to supply to your child if your child is under the age of 13:
  • Various discs from various seasons of:
    • South Park
    • Heroes
    • 24
    • The Vampire Diaries
    • House
    • Bones
    • WWE Wrestlemania
    • VEEP
    • Breaking Bad
    • The Bible
Illegal to supply to your child if your child is under the age of 16:
  • Various discs of various seasons of the blu-ray editions of:
    • Entourage
    • South Park 13th season: 
      • Season 12 Disc 3 was ok for 14 year olds: it is R13. So if you have ALL the South Parks, you need to check EACH DISC OF EACH SEASON to make sure that you're not being illegal by lending a disc to your 14 year old. Some are OK, some aren't. BUT THEY ALL AIR UNEDITED ON FREEVIEW. 
      • Same problem with Heroes. Season 3, Disc 4 is R13. Season 3, Discs 1, 3, and 5 are R16. 
    • Fringe
    • Game of Thrones
    • Always Sunny in Philadelphia
    • Breaking Bad
  • Hot Tub Time Machine (Extended version)
  • Bruno
  • Slumdog Millionaire (!?!!?)
  • The Shining
  • Hansel & Gretel, Witch Hunters
These ones are illegal to supply to your child if your child is under the age of 18:
  • Various discs of various seasons of:
    • American Horror Story: Asylum
    • Boardwalk Empire
    • Weeds
    • Walking Dead
    • Game of Thrones
    • Breaking Bad
    • True Blood
  • The Replacement Killers
  • Payback
All of these have the red Restricted labels:
Red means restricted
R(age): It is illegal to sell, hire, show or give a film or game with an age restricted label to anyone under the age specified. If something has one of these labels it can only be supplied to people of and over the age shown on the label. A parent, shop or cinema is breaking the law if they supply an age-restricted item to someone who is not legally allowed to access it. You will see these labels on films, games, DVDs and a few music recordings, magazines and books.
Fortunately, fewer books hit the Restricted ratings, likely because the Classification Office rates books only really when people send them books to be rated.

Currently restricted books include:
  • 100 Most Infamous Criminals (R13) 
  • Into The River (R14) 
  • Mytho-poeikon (R16)
    • GoodReads review here including folks saying things like "appeal to all age groups" and "loved this book in my early teens" and "I was fascinated with this book as a child")
  • The Big Book of Urban Legends (R16)
  • de Sade's One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom (R18)
  • The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (R18, Marilyn Manson's autobiography). 
A bunch of other art books are R18, including Mapplethorpe. A bunch of books on growing opium and marijuana are also R18.

And there are a pile of other books that aren't kiddie porn that are, nevertheless, illegal even for adults to possess.

I can see some point to the existence of a classification body. If we want kiddie porn to be illegal to possess, then somebody has to evaluate whether or not some photograph or video is really of a child under the age of 18. And there can be a case for standard ratings to help parents in deciding whether some film is really suitable for the whole family. But the law here is a complete ass. Any parent who screws up and watches the BluRay version of the wrong episode of South Park with their 15 year old instead of watching it on FreeView is subject to a fine of up to $10,000 or up to three months in prison (see section 126). And if your kid's doing a school project on drugs and you give him a copy of the wrong book on how to grow marijuana: up to 10 years in jail.

Some Kiwi criminals listed below. Somebody please protect me from them.

* Update: to be clear, the Classification Office listed the book as M; the obnoxious decision below is from the Board of Review.


  1. Slumdog Millionaire IIRC has a police brutality scene and also some facially scarred women.

    And I'm surprised Flowers in the Attic hasn't been banned for kids.

  2. I told you before Eric, this is election year , you can think I am joking but you must be careful what you say, for Gods sake even now I have dismissed Bryce Edwards from University of Otago.,This is New Zealand Mr Eric we rule

  3. Man, I nicked my mom's copy of Stephen King's "It" when I was 10, and tattled on myself after the third chapter. What would the regulators say?

    I was dismayed to see that the web address was real.

  4. On the plus side, there is zero enforcement. But it's still retarded.

  5. Agree that there's disturbing stuff in Slumdog Millionaire. That's the point of it. Ample reason for RP16 rating. But to make it ILLEGAL to watch it with your 15 year old? Whoever came up with this system needs be taken out behind the shed and beaten with a big wet dirty stick.

  6. More fun - it is apparently currently available from the Rangiora library on the teen fiction shelf -|||Title|||false
    The library recently went completely self-service check-out so they are bound to have lots of incriminatory evidence of the number of times they broke the law.

  7. They're about to increase the penalty for possessing objectionable publications (that you know to be objectionable) from 10 years imprisonment to 14 years imprisonment.

    I will note, however, that you can't blame the Classification Office for Into the River - the censor game Into the River an unrestricted M rating. Someone sought a review of that decision by the Film and Literature Board of Review. It was they who made it R13. Indeed, the chair of the Board wanted R18. You are not quoting from the classification office's decision, you are quoting from the Board's decision. They are entirely separate. The Censor and Classification Officers are full-time censors. The Board is there as a community check on the Government.

  8. I thought that the quote made clear that it was a Board of Review tightening of the restrictions on the book, but I can make it clearer. All the film stuff is OFL's though.

    Where did you find the bit on the Chair's view? Who the hell are these people?

  9. The quote made that clear, but the opening sentence said: "From the Classification Office's recent decision regarding "Into the River", a teen-lit book." The classification office's decision is here: It differs.

    And the bit on the Chair's view is reported here: Am in the process of trying to get his formal dissent.