Fifty years ago, a British court determined that the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, was not obscene. It was originally published in 1928, but could not be published in England (or Canada) until 1960. The story (an affair between a working class man and an upper class woman), some sex scenes, and some specific words were all considered offensive. The trial’s not guilty verdict is generally considered a landmark in increasing freedom for literature.
The Globe and Mail noted the anniversary in an article typical of stories about past censorship. For example, the trial was described as one where “the soldiers of moralism – those who believed some people had a right to tell others what they could read and how to behave – battled a pack of liberals who insisted these were individual decisions.” Naturally we make fun of the lead prosecutor’s opening line: “Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” However, the notion that censorship is required to protect ‘weaker’ individuals has long been a guiding principle of censorship.
At the time, English law described obscene material as that which had a “tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Today, we have age ratings for movies, to protect the weaker minds of children. Women still require special protection too. Canada’s current standards for defining obscene material, the 1992 Butler decision, note that some material may be harmful to women, and when the Ontario government brought in the new Film Classification Act in 2005, it retained the right to ban some adult sex films, at the request of women’s organizations.
The Globe and Mail article notes that book banning continues to occur when readers are offended by something, and claims the “obvious conclusion” of the Lady Chatterly Trial (Regina v. Penguin Book Ltd.) is that “being shocked is not the same as being done harm.” In theory, this is the logic of our current obscenity law. In practice, being shocked may be enough. The Butler decision (Regina v. Butler) reads in part:
material which may be said to exploit sex in a “degrading or dehumanizing” manner will necessarily fail the community standards test [the first and most important of a series of tests to determine criminal obscenity], not because it offends against morals but because it is perceived by public opinion to be harmful to society, particularly women.
I am not suggesting our current obscenity laws are no more valid than the laws of fifty years ago. What I wish to point out is that the Lady Chatterly trial, the Butler trial, and a host of other court cases have lowered the standard of what is considered obscene, and increased artistic freedom. Generally this is considered a good thing, but it follows that what is obscene and therefore illegal today may be considered a quaint hangup in the future, following some future trial. Eventually there would be no limits on what you can say, or show, to anyone. Or is there a line that cannot be crossed? And if there is, what if we have already crossed it?