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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Almost every country places some restrictions on what may be published, although the emphasis and the degree of control differ from country to country and at different periods. In New Zealand the law prohibits the publication of seditious and defamatory writings, or matter that is in contempt of Court, but, as might be expected in a democratic country of puritan background, censorship is primarily associated with obscenity or indecency. Traditionally, indecency has been regarded as confined to sexual matters. Since 1954, however, it has, in law, extended also to matters of horror, crime, cruelty, or violence. For the purposes of the new Act of 1963, indecency consists in describing, depicting, expressing, or otherwise dealing with matters of sex, horror, crime, cruelty, or violence in a manner injurious to the public good.

The publication of obscene writings was a common law offence in New Zealand, but became statutory when the criminal law was codified in 1893. There were also summary offences relating to obscene publications. The Indecent Publications Act of 1910 marked a new approach. It created various summary offences and laid down the matters to which the Court was to have regard. One liberal feature was the relevance of literary and artistic merit, evidence of which was admitted by the Courts. This was not achieved in England until 1959. On the other hand, jury trial was deliberately excluded as being inappropriate in this field, and ignorance of the character of a publication was not a defence.

The Act of 1910 left the determination of indecency to the ordinary Courts, and a decision on a book could be given only on a criminal prosecution or seizure proceedings. Except with obvious pornography this could be unfair to the individual and disadvantageous to the community. Court proceedings might draw attention to an undesirable and perhaps little-known work. A case could come before any Magistrate or Judge, whose opinions might colour the result. Partly for these reasons, there grew up an informal censorship by the Customs and latterly the Justice Departments, with an outside advisory committee considering literary questions. Book sellers and importers were given informal opinions which were recognised to have no legal force but were almost always accepted. Since 1954 there has been what amounts to open censorship of children's comics. The Customs authorities also devised an informal scheme of categories into which publications were placed, thus avoiding the simple in-or-out distinction of the Act.


Bruce James Cameron, B.A., LL.M., Legal Adviser, Department of Justice, Wellington.