Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The dead hand of past censorship

A story about a banned book being seized from a Wellington bookshop has exposed an unpleasant flaw in our censorship laws: once banned, material is banned forever, with review only on application (which requires that you send in a copy, which makes you guilty of possession and distribution). With our current censorship regime, which is bound by the Bill of Rights Act's affirmation of freedom of expression and has a fairly tight (but not uncontested) definition of "objectionable", that's perhaps not so much of a problem. But in the past, our censors have not been so constrained, and could ban basically anything they liked. With the result that Bloody Mama, a fictionalisation of the life of Depression-era gangster Ma Barker, can be seized even though modern eyes would likely find it totally innocuous.

The good news is that this particular book will be automatically resubmitted. But what about the rest? I've spent some time browsing the Office of Film & Literature Classifications NZ Censorship Decisions Database for books banned by the old Indecent Publications Tribunal. The list is pretty bizarre. Here's a few examples:

  • Lesbiansim and the Single Girl (banned 1968)
  • Love Positions (banned 1970)
  • The Coming of a God (banned 1970)
  • Transvestism (banned 1970)
  • The Bisexual Woman (banned 1970)
  • The Kama Sutra Illustrated (banned 1971)
  • Sex, Pornography, and the Law, vol. 1 and 2 (banned 1971)
Judging by the titles, the IPT seems to have used the censorship regime as an excuse to indulge their homophobia and bigotry, protect their preferred religion, keep people in ignorance about sexuality, and of course protect their own power by preventing discussion of censorship (other titles suggest they may also have promoted racial purity by banning books about interracial relationships). And I think it is highly doubtful that any of these bans would be upheld today.

Given the difficulty of the review process, I think its clear that the OFLC needs its own internal review procedure, to reinvestigate pre-BORA decisions and unban those works which would not meet modern criteria.