Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Anti-censorship Campaigns

Jenny Lee

There was a guerrilla quality to many of the campaigns against Australian censorship. The sheer complexity of the system and the division of responsibilities between state and federal governments, administrators and courts opened various avenues of resistance, some riskier than others.

The first extended public anti-censorship campaign began in 1934 with the establishment of the Victorian Book Censorship Abolition League, whose members included academics, lawyers, trade unionists, writers and journalists. The league used conventional lobbying tactics to promote its argument that any book permitted to circulate in Britain should also be allowed into Australia.

The league focused on the banning of overtly political works; it had little to say about books that were prohibited on sexual grounds. By 1937 the government had largely defused the league’s campaign, lifting most of the bans on political publications and opening the list of banned literary works to review by the Literature Censorship Board. Outside these limited concessions, the system remained intact, and many works that freely circulated in other countries were still banned in Australia.

From the late 1930s into the 1960s, public opposition to censorship was confined to the organisations such as the Australian Council for Civil Liberties and the Fellowship of Australian Writers, both of which were widely dismissed as Communist fronts. The hard fact remained that there were few votes in promoting civil rights and none in supporting the public’s right to read ‘dirty’ books.

Appealing against particular judgments was also of limited effect. Activists occasionally challenged censorship decisions in court, but they seldom received a favourable hearing from Australia’s conservative judiciary and the cost of losing a case could be prohibitive. Federally, an Appeal Censor was appointed in 1937 to review decisions by Customs and the Censorship Board, but the rate of success was similarly low. The appeal censors, Sir Robert Garran and L.H. Allen, had been censors of long standing and they showed little enthusiasm for overturning decisions made by their former colleagues – or even, in some cases, by themselves.

In the 1960s and 1970s, publishers increasingly resorted to bypassing the federal censorship system by publishing books inside Australia. This was a risky business, because if the courts deemed a book obscene under state laws, its publishers could be harshly penalised, as could any booksellers who distributed it. This exhibition includes several books that were brought to Australia in this way, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Trial of Lady Chatterley and Portnoy’s Complaint. It is an indication of the hegemonic nature of Australian censorship that it was only liberalised, and then only marginally, in response to open defiance of the law.

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