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April 15, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Laying Down the Law

Saddam Hussein collecting for charity, Kim Jong-il selling hot dogs, Pope Benedict XVI marrying a male couple, and now Chairman Mao dancing like he’s in Estab.

We’ve all seen the Powershop billboards and most of us probably LOLed. “Same power, different attitude”—in my opinion their attitude rocks.

Some though, disagreed. The latest billboard was swiftly banned from Auckland bus shelters by the Auckland City Council: it’s offensive, they said.

Well now, is it?

The legally correct answer is no. Allegedly offensive publications are assessed for objectionability according to the Films, Videos and Publications Act 1993. The first hurdle to pass is subject matter: the publication must deal with content such as “sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence” in order to be considered objectionable for the purposes of censorship. Immediately, the Mao billboard seems safe, as there is no cruelty or violence depicted on the poster. The dancing Chinese leader may be culturally insensitive, but we don’t seem to care about that.

Throughout the New Zealand legal system, free speech is heralded as a king right. That is, we often give more weight to protecting freedom of expression than other competing interests. Here, the law tells us that the Mao billboard is okay as this is not the kind of insult important enough to result in a curtailment of free speech.

So what is?

A brilliant example of such offending is Solid Gold Bomb T-shirt designs, heavily criticised in the UK after their ‘rape series’ appeared on Amazon.co.uk.

“Keep Calm and Rape All”;
“Keep Calm and Choke Her”;
“Keep Calm and Rape Off”.

These are the sorts of publications that we’re supposed to find offensive. Our legislation tells us that they are particularly dangerous, as they treat the relevant content in a way that makes light of such activities, even promotes them. The promotion of these awful activities is exactly the kind of speech we do not want to protect, and have no problem censoring.

An extreme example to be sure, but our censorship laws arguably require examples before limitations on free speech are justified. A fairly accurate reflection of societal progression, then, as sensitivities are increasingly lowered and openness is increasingly valued.

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