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Thoughts on the censorship of books and other media 14/07/2013

Posted by Nigel in Opinion.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Preface: This is my first post in a while, and certainly not a subject I’d normally post about, my interest in posting this, is as someone on the internet, and an Aucklander. Excerpts from specific IPT/OFLC decisions were found by searching their database for restricted/RC/NC content and looking at decisions at random.

This week I got caught up in an interesting discussion on Twitter regarding the book ‘Lost Girls’ (a book I’d never heard of before this week – and most likely will never read), the Tweet that started it all was:

Auckland Libraries’ reply was interesting to me, why are other books okay, but this one isn’t? For some strange reason I’m a big fan of censorship, as long as it’s just and fair, I disagree with Australia’s policies for censorship of games because they don’t have an R18 classification (oddly, they do for movies), and actively refuse classification of the more violent games, where New Zealand allows and issues R16/R18 ratings.

I find New Zealand’s censorship legislation to be very fair, very rarely have I seen something that I thought didn’t have the correct classification (i.e. too lax/too restrictive), the law that makes this possible is the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, which really pulls together what appears (from historical information) a dogs breakfast of legislation, and covers all types of media, including books.

So, should a book be censored? Maybe, it’s my opinion that it is fair to censor games, movies, and books. A book can be just as suggestive/explicit, perhaps even more so, as any other type of media, so I definitely understand & agree with the Government’s decisions in the past include books in the relevant censorship legislation.

Matthew Finch, a consultant who I understand is currently consulting with Auckland Libraries, made some great points, including:


Dylan Horrocks made some good points as well during the Twitter discussion, including but not limited to:

Personally, I understand their points of view, but, in my opinion, a library, as a publicly funded institution (if I’m doing my math right, based on the 2013 budget (source: Draft Annual Plan 2013/14, pages 65 & 66) this was around 86.2 million dollars from rates & conventional council funding (Regional library services & Local libraries) disclaimer: if someone in the know can correct/confirm this, let me know and I’ll update if I’m wrong) is to serve the public and promote freedom of access to books/information and other services (as pointed out on Twitter last week or so, one of the Chicago libraries even has a Maker lab), and I like that Auckland Libraries certainly aren’t ashamed of the more risqué side of their collection, but I don’t think it’s their place to risk prosecution by not submitting some of the ‘more risqué’ to clarify their position and to safeguard public funds.

Out of interest, I searched the OFLC Classifications database for R16+/R* (restricted to specific persons)/Banned books, 175 results were returned, most banned examples date back to the 70s/80s, but there are some interesting examples of restrictions, and reading some of the associated register/Gazette entries.

Some of these decisions are interesting, and show a different time of this country, for instance, in 1970 a book was banned (ref: IPT decision number 240~249/1970 (search keyword for OFLC site is: ‘IPT 70-243’)) for the following reason:

This is one more of too many books about wife-swapping. As usual it is set in an environment of idleness, affluence, and indulgence. Although the author contrived a romanticly happy ending between Connie, the likeable partner in the swaps, mostly uncongenial, and Dr Larry Crandall, her husband having been incinerated in a car crash, these considerations do not offset the repetitions and emphasised details of the swaps or of the
violence that enters into them. On these, the emphasis falls so heavily that the Tribunal is led to classify this book as indecent in terms of the Act.

Without knowing details of the contents of book itself (heck, it’d be illegal for me read a copy based on its ban, to find out), the above reason just sounds ludicrous, how many TV shows have now showed situations that sound potentially similar to the IPT’s description quoted above?

Some of the IPT (Indecent Publications Tribunal) decisions around the 90s before the OFLC refer to “The Penthouse Decision” which seems to acknowledge the simple fact that times change, in fact one quote (sourced from IPT decision 78/92 (IPT 92-78)):

Classification of those issues of the magazines in the Penthouse Decision as indecent in the hands of persons under the age of 18 years, although possibly violating this freedom of expression, was “a reasonable limitation prescribed by law and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Limitation of the freedom of expression was necessary only to the extent of protecting society from the injurious effects of allowing certain materials to be in the hands of persons under the age of 18 years. — pg 4

is relevant to this point, after all, can you imagine some of the R18 movies (or AO TV shows of ‘today’) getting screened/approved/rated 40 years ago? I’m thinking of the likes of some of the HBO / US Cable TV shows (such as Jenji Kohan’s Weeds – which features subjects such as drug growing (including around children), or Breaking Bad (which I’ve just been introduced to (Thanks LR & JB!) which in the first episode shows the apparent nasty murder of two people, and the manufacture of meth/P, DVDs of which appear to be classified R16 (OFTC Publication Number 0900343.000), unfortunately the OFLC decision documents don’t have a discussion of why R16 is applicable, when considering Section 3(3)(d) includes “promotes or encourages criminal acts or acts of terrorism”, something tells me that one of the ‘get-out-of-jails’ in 3(4) applied.

While on the subject of Breaking Bad, it’s interesting to point out that Auckland Libraries hold items such as Breaking Bad, which do have age restrictions in their catalogue, which indicates that they are okay stocking content that has been restricted (and obviously as a result willing and able to hold & issue items that were censored to some degree), so my resulting question from all this is: What is to fear from submitting books for classification?

Going back to ‘the Penthouse Decision’ while researching what it was all about, I stumbled on a Canterbury Law Review article by J. L. Caldwell, Pornography – An Argument For Censorship, discussing, in 1992, what was to become Films, Videos, and Publications Classification. An interesting quote from the article (page 1 of the PDF):

In the contemporary New Zealand context, there is, in my view, simply no realistic risk of a work with an artistic, literary intent, or with a socially serious purpose, being subject to censorship.

The article is well worth a read and applies today, and makes some interesting points (with citations) especially around the US model of ‘civil rights’ vs the current model of censorship. My perspective, is that both result in the same thing (with the US potentially a tad more permissive.

What I think Caldwell is trying to say, is that genuine works that serve as a book/story, rather than “porn without pictures”, under NZ Law shouldn’t/won’t be censored, in fact he goes further talking about what is now our legislation in section VII:

As discussed above, considerable discretion is inevitably reposed in the Classification Office under the new legislation. This means that the judgment and philosophical perspective of that Office will be the critical determinant in the effective implementation of the new censorship regime. Accordingly, the recent decisions of the Indecent Publications Tribunal, whose written decisions have been the most accessible of the previously existing censorship bodies are of considerable interest in revealing how an increasingly liberal approach to censorship resulted in a loosening of censorship restrictions under the relevant Act. In turn, it will be seen that this resulted in the Tribunal permitting, albeit subject to conditions, pornographic material which in my view would have been more appropriately prohibited. pg 196 (publication)/pg 26 (PDF)

Personally, I’m with the likes of Matt, Dylan & Auckland Libraries to an extent, if a book (or any media item) was to be banned for an unjust reason (or unjustly restricted), it is the public’s duty to defend the works, and to attempt to get the problem corrected, going as far as it takes – even as far as petitioning the Government of the day to fix legislation.

But, I think it’s important that libraries and people in general safeguard themselves (and in the case of libraries their councils and ratepayers), safeguard themselves by defensively submitting the potentially legally risqué publications and establishing a baseline and the opinion of the current censor. (Interestingly, upon a referral by the DIA, Fifty Shades (a book I have no intention of reading) was classified M, citing the Bill of Rights as the reason not to impose a restricted classification, ref: OFLC publication 1200609.000)

I concede though that libraries are right to think, that if a book was banned, due to their referral to the OFLC that the media and various people would portray the libraries in a bad light. This is why perhaps there is a need for a group of interested people to put forward private submissions of potentially risqué books to avoid potential issues for public institutions – I’d certainly put in money and time to help accomplish that.

It’s also important to note, that unlike the United States, free speech isn’t guaranteed in a constitution or common law, as Wikipedia does point out Freedom of Expression is granted, with the condition that it is restricted to protect morals, a reason in my opinion, that we need censorship legislation (my point would be null, if our laws were more permissive than restrictive).

I’m not proposing a solution outright, this is something that in my opinion requires deep discussion and thought from all interested parties (including the OFLC, and the current Government/politicians), certainly more than a bunch of Twitter/Facebook discussions and blog posts can provide, hopefully Dylan’s original request and Facebook post is just the start of this discussion.

As a last note, as mentioned earlier, morals & opinions of what is acceptable in society change, especially over 40+ years, it seems to me that we need provisions & a process to review and look back at past decisions and reevaluate if decisions still have merit (especially those that result in a ban), and re-examine items as needed and where interest exists. Such a list needs to be a living document, and needs to reflect that change happens, and there is a lot more independent, self-published books (mainly in the form of e-Books) that our law also impacts.

This isn’t just about what is acceptable in libraries, but also the internet.


I’d like to point out that the above post is my opinion and not influenced and may not reflect the opinions of employers past, present or future.

I’d also like to point out that I’m not a lawyer so don’t take any of my comments as any sort of advice on how the law actually stands.



1. cringing - 15/07/2013

I’m going to have to disagree with you on censorship, I don’t like it at all. I understand censoring nudity in video games, TV shows, and such but when it comes to the actual content, I’m not a fan. Either way, I really liked this post (even though we have different opinions). Also, if you don’t mind, I’d love if it you’d take a peek at my blog!

Nigel - 15/07/2013

To be honest, I don’t think anyone is a fan of censorship, I’d describe myself as more an advocate than a fan (and I never used to be either at one point). The New Zealand model follows a Unrestricted with Recommendations, Restricted, or Objectionable model, like Australia.

The main reason why my opinions changed, is that I realized that if I ever have/look after children, a system that gives an initial indication on if something is suitable, is a good thing. In NZ/Australia this is fairly consistent (although there are exceptions, and as I highlighted, there are cases where times have changed, and morals/etc make some more acceptable than in the past.

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