Canada's Unjustifiable Censorship

St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 10, 1994 | Go to article overview

Canada's Unjustifiable Censorship


The United States' devotion to free speech has meant that its anti-pornography laws are not applied easily or often. The situation is different in Canada, where U.S. books routinely are being seized at the border on a virtually arbitrary basis.

Canadian anti-obscenity laws are tough; they require the owners of banned material to prove it isn't pornographic; U.S. courts require the government to prove it is. Worse, a key Canadian court decision last year expanded the definition of obscenity to include, according to a report in The New York Times, "depictions of sex that degrades or exploits women and other groups." The result has been a marked rise in books seized at the Canadian border.

The seizures amount to a war against free expression. For instance, Toronto's Trent University found it couldn't get a shipment of "The Man Sitting in the Corridor" by Marguerite Duras for a class on her work. A customs official had checked the box that said "sex with violence" on the customs form. Without appeal, back the books went to New York.

Ms. Duras is a serious writer, not a purveyor of pornography. But because her book is about a woman who is maimed and dies after sex, it was banned. The university had the clout to get the decision reversed, but many bookstore owners aren't so successful. Those selling books for gay and lesbian readers, for example, often find U.S. shipments seized, even though sometimes the very same books are available in Canada. Obscenity means whatever a customs official says it is.

A defense of this policy was offered by the attorney who argued the case last year that extended the reach of the obscenity law to include material that "degrades or exploits women and other groups. …

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