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Usually justified in terms of protecting the moral welfare of citizens, maintaining social order and securing the state from real or imagined enemies, the censorship system extends to all printed matter, films, plays, broadcasts and the Internet. The Colony of Victoria passed an Obscenity Act in 1876, but the first recorded seizure of indecent and obscene books was in Melbourne in 1854. Hidden in a consignment from New York, they were discovered at Queens Wharf. An early example of stage censorship occurred in 1879, when the political satire The happy land, suppressed in London by Gladstone, one object of its parody, was banned by Victorian Premier Graham Berry.

After Federation in 1901, customs and posts and telegraph legislation sought to prevent the importation and circulation of literature, films or objects considered to be indecent, obscene or seditious. Victoria also legislated to outlaw the production and circulation of indecent and obscene works. Police acting on complaints from the public could prosecute publishers, printers, distributors and writers. Norman Lindsay's novel Redheap (1930) was one of the first Australian novels banned by the Commonwealth Government.

Opposition to censorship increased during the 1930s. A monument on Sydney Road, Brunswick, commemorates artist and communist activist Noel Counihan's 1933 campaign for freedom of speech. Protesting against the habitual arrest of speakers canvassing the topics of unemployment and home evictions, Counihan spoke from within an old elevator cage bolted to the back of a horse and cart, carrying the sign, 'We Want Free Speech'. Charged with two counts of offensive behaviour and obstructing the traffic, he was convicted and imprisoned at Pentridge until released on appeal.

The Book Censorship Abolition League (BCAL), formed in 1934, attacked the Commonwealth's banning of foreign classics such as Aldous Huxley's Brave new world as well as the censorship of communist and other political works. Novelist John M. Harcourt, in Melbourne because of police prosecution in Western Australia for his novel Upsurge (1934), declined the presidency of the League but chaired its inaugural meeting at which political scientist W. Macmahon Ball was elected. Other prominent members included Judge A.W. Foster, Australian Labor Party MHR Maurice Blackburn and historian Brian Fitzpatrick. On 26 February 1935, the League organised a well-attended public debate on censorship at the Melbourne Town Hall. It was sponsored by The Star newspaper, which also printed highlights of the debate in a booklet. Renamed the Council for Civil Liberties in 1936, the League operated from 169 Exhibition Street.

During the 1940s the Realist Film Association, which had its office at 92 Flinders Street, campaigned against the political censorship of films (both the banning and cutting of films) by the Victorian Documentary Film Council of 110 Victoria Street, Carlton. In 1964, when the Freedom to Read Association campaigned in support of the editors prosecuted over Sydney's Oz magazine in Sydney, its secretary, historian Ian Turner, operated a post office box at the Chadstone Centre.

Melbourne's wowserism was represented in D.W. Burbidge's novel Harvest of mischief (Melbourne, 1947). A romantic comedy-drama, it satirised politicians and religious lobby groups who favoured stricter censorship and provided a manual on how publishers could circumvent Commonwealth censorship. Conservative Melbourne politicians who became infamous because of their strong stand on censorship and moral issues include the Hon. T.W. White, Minister for Customs and Trade during the 1930s when Commonwealth political and moral censorship was at its peak, and Sir Arthur Rylah, Liberal Party MLA for Kew who was Deputy Premier and Chief Secretary (1955-71) and Attorney-General (1955-67) in Henry Bolte's Victorian Government.

Two Melbourne writers have been prosecuted for obscene libel under State legislation. Robert S. Close's Love me sailor (1945), published by Georgian House, was subject to court cases in 1946 and 1948, with Close and his publisher both fined. Close was also sentenced to three months' gaol in 1948 but was released after 10 days. Frank Hardy's Power without glory (1950) is a semi-fictional account of the life and times of a prominent Melbourne businessman. The court case lasted nine months, amid much public interest, but Hardy was eventually acquitted of the charge.

In 1965 John Lodge appeared in the Sandringham Court and was fined £25 for distributing a banned publication, after he had lent Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn to an unnamed friend. Local governments also imposed their own censorship through their libraries. In 1967, for example, Moorabbin Council banned Barry Humphries' Bizarre.

Recent cases of censorship include an article on shoplifting and a photography exhibition. In January 1996, four editors of the La Trobe University student paper, Rabelais, were charged with offences under Victorian law for printing and distributing an objectionable publication - an article called 'The Art of Shoplifting'. Although the article had been previously published in three other student journals, the Melbourne editors were the only ones who faced charges over it. In October 1997, an exhibition by the American photographer Andres Serrano at the National Gallery of Victoria prompted the then Catholic Archbishop, Dr George Pell, to seek an injunction on the grounds that a particular photograph entitled 'Piss Christ', which purportedly portrayed a crucifix immersed in the artist's urine, was blasphemous, indecent and obscene at law. Although the court allowed the exhibition, it was eventually closed by the director of the Gallery following 'prayerful' protests outside the Gallery and a second attack of vandalism. Germaine Greer observed that it may have been a 'Budweiser Christ', but that that was piss anyhow, while another commentator observed that the 'regulation of free speech seems to have moved from the legal system to the hands of vigilantes'.

Patricia Holt

Coleman, Peter, Obscenity, blasphemy, sedition: The rise and fall of censorship in Australia, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2000. Details