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The art of censorship

By Christopher van Opstal - posted Wednesday, 28 December 2005


Students have a message for Australia: shoplifting, squatting, or getting off in public are some of the best routes to subversion. But behind the carefree spirit, Australia’s student press is seeing red.

"Shoplifting is an art," four students once wrote, "that deserves the widest possible dissemination." This was intended as the prologue to an edgy, satirical triumph over capitalism. Most students saw it as an example of the popular culture-jamming literature that keeps student papers politically and intellectually afloat, but others, such as the Retail Traders Association, knocked on courtroom doors to stir up legal action.

At a time when student protests had been dormant for nearly two decades, the revelations were startling. The step-by-step guide to shoplifting, published in a 1995 edition of Rabelais, the student paper of La Trobe University, was banned by the Office of Film & Literature Classification board as material that "promotes, incites and instructs in matters of crime". The four editors were each threatened with $24,000 in fines and up to two years' jail. All charges were eventually dropped, but not before the case reached the Federal Court.

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A decade later and a wave of post-trauma is still washing over student papers.

“Since the Rabelais case, every editorial team has been conscious that people outside universities read these papers and that there is quite a strong possibility that these publications can be taken to court,” says Hon Boey, editor of Vertigo, the student paper at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).

Running instructional guides to boost political activism has become something of a thrilling trend. Practical advice on "How to f--- up the Olympics", "How to get off in public", "How to damage ticketing machines", "How to grow dope to supplement your Austudy" and "How to drive drunk and get away with it" have kept the tradition of controversy alive.

Censorship, editors maintain, is best combated by more speech and not a word less.

This year, an entire edition of Vertigo, titled "Do It Yourself", was dedicated to such tactics. The publication courts controversy. Vertigo caused a stir a few months ago when it sought to help offset student poverty by educating readers about squatting tactics. The UTS Legal Centre took a look at the material and advised editors to scratch it because it advocated crime.

“The main argument for censoring the article went that if Vertigo does get taken to court, are we willing to spend the time and money fighting for the rights of this article?” says Boey, who with the other editors unanimously fought for zero censorship.

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A guide to rolling a joint was included in a 2004 issue of the University of NSW's student publication Blitz. But hours after the story circulated around campus, the issue was pulled off the stands by UNSW's Student Union.

"Considering what happened with Rabelais ten years ago, the rationale that was given was that we were promoting or assisting drug use," says Janet Duncan, who was editor of Blitz at the time. Duncan says her editorial in the next issue, explaining why the previous edition was pulled, was heavily censored. "Although my editor's note was published, it wasn't the note I initially wrote," she says. "I was told to pull that note and write something much vaguer. I was not allowed to give the whys."

In 1999, the then Commonwealth Education Minister David Kemp intervened when UTS students intended to publish and circulate a guide to using university toilets to shoot up heroin, which they claimed was intended to facilitate safe drug use.

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Article edited by Natalie Rose.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Australian on November 14, 2005.



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About the Author

Christopher van Opstal is a student of journalism and law at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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