Going by this morning’s papers,
the Federal Attorney-General’s plan for additional book-banning is
facing some resistance. Philip Ruddock said that “his state
counterparts had agreed to re-examine classification laws”, but Victoria’s Rob Hulls said “Mr Ruddock was told to go away and work up a more substantial proposal”.

fact that this idea is still on the table, however, should be a matter
of great concern. Although we already have sedition laws that
potentially cover a wide range of material, extending the “war on
terror” into the classification laws represents a bold new attack on
basic freedoms.

To our ancestors, “freedom of speech” did not
mean the right to publish material without legal liability: it meant
the right to publish without prior restraint. Free speech campaigners
realised that writers and publishers would still risk prosecution for
libel, blasphemy, and so on, but their main objective was the abolition
of the licensing systems that stopped unapproved books reaching the
market in the first place.

That battle, so we thought, has been
won. We still have a classification scheme, but it is basically
directed against pornography, which has always been treated as a
special case (wrongly, in my view, but that’s a separate argument). One
section allows the banning of materials that “promote, incite or
instruct in matters of crime or violence”, but it is very rarely used.

is the section that Ruddock now wants broadened to encompass “Material
which urges or advocates terrorist acts”, so that books the government
finds politically unappealing can be stopped, not by subsequent
prosecution in open court, but by an administrative procedure before
they even appear. Yet the attorney had the hide to say yesterday that “We are not about curtailing freedom of speech.”

On the contrary, this goes to the very heart of what free speech is about. Books do not even need that “sophisticated electronic device“,
the off switch: if you don’t like what you read, you can put it back on
the shelf. But those who do want to read them should not have to get
government approval first.