New Zealand has issued it’s first ban on a book in 22 years as the Film and Literature Board of Review ordered Ted Dawe’s award winning 2012 novel Into the River be placed on the restriction order, effectively making it illegal to distribute or exhibit the novel in New Zealand. Individuals who do distribute the book are liable for a fine of NZ$3,000 while companies who sell it are looking at a NZ$10,000 fine.
New Zealand has a ratings system for books in place, and upon it’s initial release Into the River, a young adult novel which won the New Zealand Post Children’s Book award, was rated R-14. That restriction was later removed by deputy chief censor Nic McCully, making it available to all ages, a move which earned the ire of conservative group Family First. Bob McCoskrie, the National Director of Family First NZ, argued that because the novel contained “strong offensive language, strong sexual descriptions” and covered a range of serious topics like “pedophilia and sexual abuse,” it should not be made readily available for children. Family First NZ never requested the book be banned, but instead wanted the age restriction replaced. Instead the Film and Literature Board of Review elected to place an interim restriction on the book, effectively criminalising it’s sale and distribution. The book’s final fate will be determined after a review next month.
McCoskrie told CNN, “I’ve read it to parents, I’ve sat with a group of fathers, none of them want their children to be reading it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be hanging around with people who have been reading it.” While McCoskrie never requested the ban, he has welcomed it. The book’s author, Tim Dawe, has also issued a statement noting that his intended audience is teenage boys. “I have taught in secondary schools for the past forty years.” he said. “Much of this time has been spent encouraging boys to read. Part of the challenge was to find books that ‘spoke’ to them. This meant books about issues that were relevant to them and written in a style that was authentic … There are many issues that young adults can not take to other people. They want to do their own thinking about them. There is no better, no more private medium for this than the novel. In this relatively safe context the teenager can navigate through issues such as race, sexual orientation, body issues, class discrimination and bullying and harrasment. They can test their responses against the main characters and calibrate the differences without the need to discuss … The last banned book was entitled How to Build a Bazooka. Perhaps the content of Into the River is a bazooka fired into the complacent middle class oligarchy that rules this country.”
Predictably, this issue has raised a debate on whether freedom of speech or expression has been compromised by the banning. Joanna Mathew, the excecutive director of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand is concerned by the development. “A key principle underlying the library and information profession is freedom of access to information. Individuals should have the ability to make their own decisions about what is suitable,” she said. “By burying a story that actually reflects real societal issues we fail to create an environment where we can effectively address them.” Dawe has also raised the issue; “Most of my friends are shocked by this, embarrassed that they live in a country where this is happening … It’s very much out of step with the way ordinary New Zealanders feel about freedom of expression” he said in a statement to CNN.
So, is this an overreaction on the part of the classification board? Has Dawe’s freedom of expression been compromised? Perhaps most importantly, should Into the River be made available for children? In my own opinion, the banning of any form of expression; be it speech, novel, music, film or video game; is a fundamentally incorrect reaction to controversy. Erasing a story from circulation simply because you, as an individual, object to it’s contents is not a fair or reasonable reaction. There are plenty of stories I have issues with but never in a million years would I suggest everyone else be barred from reading them just because I dislike them. As to the specific issue at hand here, should Into the River be made readily available to all ages? Clearly not. It’s themes are way too mature for some; you’d never hand a copy to an eight year old for example. But surely parents must survey the media their children consume? If some parents don’t want their child to read Into the River that’s their right: to raise their children as they see fit, but issuing a complete ban on the thing robs other parents of that same right. If a parent wants to buy Into the River to give to their teenage child and have a conversation about it’s themes and content or just let them absorb it themselves, they should be able to do so, just as any parent should be able to ignore it completely.
Into the River‘s final fate will be decided in October, but until then it’ll remain illegal to purchase in New Zealand. It’s worth noting however, that if you already own a copy you aren’t suddenly in violation of New Zealand law. According to media law expert Ursula Cheer, simply owning and reading the book is perfectly legal. “Having it for your own personal use is OK,” Cheer told the New Zealand Herald. “Passing it around to your friends is not.”