Early censorship legislation
Colonial New Zealand did not have extensive censorship laws, although sections of the Customs Act 1858 banned the import of ‘indecent’ material. The Vagrants Act 1866 deemed anyone publicly displaying ‘obscene’ material to be ‘a rogue and a vagabond’. The definitions of ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’ were left up to the discretion of customs officials, police or concerned members of the public.
Christchurch police prosecuted five local booksellers in 1890. The booksellers were charged with selling novels by French writer Émile Zola to undercover policemen – even though one of these copies was entirely in French.
The first specific censorship legislation in New Zealand was the Offensive Publications Act 1892. That was followed by a series of censorship laws enacted in the 1890s and early 1900s, which set out definitions to help magistrates decide whether material was offensive.
Art or obscenity?
The issue of artistic merit versus obscenity was raised in 1906. Auckland picture dealers Lawrence and Chignall were taken to court over the sale of postcard reproductions of mythologically themed paintings ‘Psyche’s bath’ by Frederic Leighton and ‘Psyche at the mirror’ by Paul Thumann, both of which featured nudity. The defence argued that the postcards were ‘pure art’ and therefore not indecent, to which the magistrate agreed. Arguments surrounding artistic merit continued throughout the history of censorship in New Zealand.
Political censorship in war and peace
During the First World War the minister of defence was given the power to ban any publication considered damaging to the war effort. Banned publications included German-language newspapers, the International Socialist Review, Irish nationalist paper The Green Ray, the Croatian socialist paper Nova Svijet and all publications by the Industrial Workers of the World. The strongest opposition to political censorship came from the Protestant Political Association, after the Post Office, in 1917, stopped the distribution of the anti-Catholic pamphlet Rome’s hideous guilt.
The Labour government imposed even stricter censorship during the Second World War. Censorship of the press, mail and telegrams was reintroduced and a range of publications critical of the government were banned, including the left-wing literary journal Tomorrow. The printing presses of the Co-operative Press, which had printed pacifist leaflets, and of the communist newspaper People’s Voice were seized.
The National government also imposed strict censorship during the 1951 waterfront dispute. It was declared illegal to publish any article in support of the locked-out workers, and possession of ‘seditious’ literature could be punished by imprisonment.
‘Disgusting indecent communistic’
The prime minister’s secretary received the following telegram on 1 March 1926: ‘Instruct watch for new novel entitled ‘Butchers Shop’ by Jean Devanny Wellington lady Publishers Duckworth London, alleged depiction station life New Zealand disgusting indecent communistic.’1 The novel, by New Zealand-born writer and communist Jean Devanny, was banned. It has been suggested the banning was due to the book challenging women’s social role or that its frank descriptions of farming life would put people off migrating to New Zealand.
Film censorship in the silent era
Film was a popular entertainment in New Zealand from the early 1900s, but there was initially no system of film censorship. In March 1916, during the First World War, the government gave itself the power to ban films depicting realistic battle scenes, fearing that these might deter recruiting.
In 1915 and 1916 the New Zealand Catholic Federation headed a campaign that lobbied the government to introduce film censorship. This led to the appointment of the first film censor in 1916. The censor was given extensive powers but censorship decisions could be challenged before a Board of Appeal. Controversy began immediately. The decision to allow the screening of the D. W. Griffith film Intolerance was challenged by church groups objecting to Christ being depicted on screen.
A system of classification was introduced in 1920. ‘U’ indicated a film suitable for everyone, while ‘A’ indicated films suitable for adults only. The system was advisory only, as it was believed that parents should take responsibility for policing their children’s viewing.
The ‘talkies’ and censorship
New Zealand’s introduction of ‘talkies’, films with sound, in 1929 greatly increased the work of the censor. More films began to be aimed at an adult audience. In 1930 the censor banned 102 films out of the 2,626 films submitted. Hollywood film-makers introduced the strictly moralistic Hays Code for film content in 1932, after which there was a substantial reduction in the number of films banned in New Zealand.
The censor’s decisions were sometimes shaped by political considerations. The film All quiet on the Western Front was banned in 1930 on the grounds that it was anti-war propaganda. A group of members of Parliament lobbied to have the film shown and eventually the Board of Appeal approved it for viewing.