Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition:
The Rise and Fall of Literary Censorship in Australia

Peter Coleman

Duffy and Snellgrove 2000 [1962]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004 http://dannyreviews.com/
Focusing on the key legal cases, Peter Coleman's history of censorship in Australia is a lively read. Though written over forty years ago, it is still essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of Australian censorship.

Coleman begins with regulation by Customs of the importation of literary works, going back before Federation to censorship by individual states in the 1880s. He follows the changes in policy and covers works including Redheap, Ulysses, and Lady Chatterly's Lover. Chapter two covers the same period but deals with censorship by the police: key cases involved All Quiet on the Western Front, Angry Penguins, Love Me Sailor, We Were the Rats, and Power Without Glory.

Despite the subtitle, Coleman doesn't just cover literary censorship. In chapter three he looks at the censorship of educational materials on sex and birth control: a key decision was Justice Windeyer's classical liberal judgement in the 1888 Collins case, though that was challenged in 1912 with the prosecution of sex reformer and crank William James Chidley. Also associated with freethought was blasphemy. Here "the outrageous character of the [Lorando Jones case of 1871] made the idea of prosecuting people for blasphemy so unpopular that it was largely responsible for finally killing the idea of blasphemy as a crime" (though there were several subsequent newspaper and magazine cases).

Political censorship goes back as far as European settlement. Enthusiasm by prime minister Hughes for Commonwealth censorship powers established in WWI led to the activism of the Book Censorship Abolition League and gave the communists a cause with broad support. World War Two brought the most dramatic confrontation, in which newspapers combined to face down the government over the use of the military censorship system to prevent criticism of the government.

Turning to the scandal mongers, Coleman looks at publications such as the 1843 Satirist and Sporting Chronicle, Lee's Police Budget (police reporting) and Beckett's Budget, which survived repeated censorship attempts only to go bankrupt in 1929 anyway. He concludes: "Now with the legislative restrictions on reports of judicial proceedings such papers are never likely to emerge again." And Coleman finishes with censorship of popular entertainment, of romance novels, crime fiction, and comics. This was tied up with protectionist attempts to help local Australian content against overseas competition.

Though written in 1962, Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition has a surprisingly modern feel and only feels dated when Coleman is describing the "current state" of censorship. This is partly because of his anti-censorship stance, but also because in many ways not much has changed. It's now unfashionable to patronise the "weaker sex", but "protecting the children" is still the common cry of censors. Popular entertainment is still discriminated against, though hip hop music and computer games are now the target. Anti-blasphemy laws are dead, but new hate speech laws have appeared. And vagueness, inconsistency, and arbitrariness are still hallmarks of censorship in Australia.

December 2004

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com
Related reviews:
- Helen Vnuk - Snatched: Sex and Censorship in Australia
- books about Australia + Australian history
- books about civil liberties
- books published by Duffy and Snellgrove
%T Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition
%S The Rise and Fall of Literary Censorship in Australia
%A Coleman, Peter
%I Duffy and Snellgrove
%D 2000 [1962]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1875989722
%P 257pp