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A timely history of the fight for civil liberties in NSW

The Liberating of Lady Chatterley and Other True Stories:
A History of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties

By Dorothy Campbell and Scott Campbell
Paperback, 190 pages, illustrated. $24.95

5 June 2008

This is a book about a problem that is ever with us.

The balance between social order and the right of the individual to freedom of expression, opinion, movement, and protection from arbitrary official conduct tips all to easily in favour of the state – and the most bullying elements within it – unless constant vigilance is maintained by people who care.

I had been dilatory about undertaking this review when, on Friday 23 May, the NSW police swooped on the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Paddington, seized several photographs from an exhibition of works by Bill Henson and announced that charges would be laid under NSW and Commonwealth law for publishing an “indecent article”. The Henson affair makes the Campbells’ book very timely reading indeed.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s art reviewer, John McDonald (who was once flavour of the month with the Quadrant mob leading the current witch-hunt), “To the rest of the world Henson is not simply one of Australia’s best-known artists – he is the undisputed Numero Uno”.

The police acted on the complaint of the child protection advocate, Hetty Johnston. “You can call it anything you want, but at the end of the day, these are images of naked adolescents”, she said.

That entirely unnuanced, black and white view is where the problem starts. That’s the top of the slippery slope, and we have had to climb back up it before – painfully – as this valuable history demonstrates.

The NSWCCL was founded in 1963. That was almost two decades after the end of WWII, but Australian law, the police, and in many respects the legal system clung to the past. As we followed the US into the Vietnam quagmire, and the hippy phenomena got under way, a growing popular desire for free expression of social, cultural and political ideas ran up against repressive laws and police practices that developed – accreting on the illiberal attitudes of the Victorian era –during the social strife of the Depression, the emergency conditions of the Second World War and Menzies’ post-war anti-communist campaign.

There had been earlier attempts to start an organization dedicated to the defence of civil liberties in NSW, but these petered out. The spark that lit the CCL was struck one summer night in February 1963 when “A corrupt policeman and two colleagues took time off extorting money from prostitutes” to terrorise a quiet private party at a small flat in Kings Cross.

The forces of “law and order” had reckoned without the presence of Ken Buckley, a former British paratroop officer who was Senior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of Sydney. Buckley demanded the officers’ names, which they gave him, but they refused to produce identification. When he pursued the matter with the Commissioner of Police, the names proved to be false, the commissioner stonewalled and Buckley responded by joining with Dick Klugman and Jack Sweeney QC to found the CCL.

To the new organization rallied a considerable number of lawyers tired of police brutality and falsification of evidence. They covered a wide range of views from conservatism to the far left, a fact that enabled the new organization to honestly represent itself as being non-party-political. It is a measure of the widespread nature of public concern at the highhanded attitude of the police and their general unaccountability that even the Daily Telegraph was generally supportive of Buckley’s campaign over the Kings Cross incident.

This book provides an extensive overview of the CCL’s subsequent interventions. There are chapters on censorship, reform of police procedures, the rights of prisoners, Aborigines, children, women, migrants and asylum-seekers as well as the issue of abortion law and the question of a Bill of Rights. To read them is to step back into a different, more repressive Australia and to understand how legal activism has helped create a better and more tolerant society.

Since censorship is now come back with a vengeance, it is worth briefly recounting the controversy over the censorship of literature through which our current, more liberal censorship regime and and a workable system of film classification evolved, largely under pressure of the CCL.

James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in 1929, released for publication in 1937, and then banned again under pressure from the Catholic Evidences League. Over time it was allowed a restricted readership of scholars and professionals only. In 1948, an Australian novel Love Me Sailor was banned and its author, Robert Close, gaoled for obscenity.

At the time of the CCL’s foundation in 1963, DH Lawrence ’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Baldwin’s Another Country and Nabakov’s Lolita were banned in Australia even though they were freely available in almost every other country in the world. In the same year Mary McCarthy’s The Group was withdrawn from sale.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been released from censorship in the United Kingdom in 1961 after a trial at the Old Bailey in which the jury were famously asked: “Would you allow your wife or even your servants to read this book?” They decided that they would, but Prime Minister Menzies kept the book on the banned list because he decided he would never allow Dame Pattie to read it.

To make matters worse, the minister for customs then banned The Trial of Lady Chatterley, an account of the case published by Penguin. This led to one of the early successes of the CCL, when a clandestine operation launched by its committee had the book split into 10 parts and mailed from England to different addresses in Australia where it was retypeset and published as “A CCL Project”. Legally speaking, it proved to be easier to ban books from entering the country than to ban a book published here and the authorities’ decision not to prosecute led to an immediate relaxation of censorship. It was a significant victory for the CCL. Even so, in 1975, the NSW minister for police and community services attempted to take away the power of juries to decide matters of obscenity and to return that power to magistrates. Draconian censorship legislation was actually rushed through the NSW Parliament but was, within months, superceded by legislation that established the present liberal film classification system.

Another notable example of the CCL’s work was the publication in 1964 of the booklet If You Are Arrested. Concerned about acts of brutality and illegality by individual police officers, and the knowledge that most citizens had only a hazy notion of the law, the booklet succinctly outlined an arrested individual’s rights, stressing the presumption of innocence and the right to silence until legal aid is obtained. Sales of the booklet were brisk, and its contents were reproduced in Pix and The Bulletin, as well as some migrant papers. Coming as it did before the upsurge in arrests at demonstrations and other forms of public protest against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, the publication was timely. It is regrettably, no longer on sale.

Of importance also is the CCL’s opposition to draconian sedition and “anti-terrorism” legislation which the CCL has been active in opposing. As the CCL’s ASIO/Increased Police Powers Sub-committee states “the very existence of these powers in a secret unaccountable body will affect the public mood, and a use of the powers will enable ASIO to intimidate Australian citizens”. Leichhard Council’s recent decision to close down an exhibition of photos depicting the troubles in Palestine following a visit from “anti-terrorism” police is a disturbing example of this phenomenon.

This book makes clear that the CCL’s leading role in the struggle to liberate the individual from arbitrary and intrusive state supervision was not without debate and controversy within its own ranks between libertarian purists and those who agued that the state had, up to a certain point and in specific areas, a legitimate role in limiting activities of the individual.

The Campbells’ history deserves to be found on the shelf of every lawyer, political activist and, dare I say it, politician , in Australia. Thoughtful police officers would also benefit from understanding the repressive past we have but tentatively escaped. Hopefully they would be shocked at some of the past practices detailed here.

The Liberating of Lady Chatterley is available from the Law Society Shop or online from the Law Society at: www.lawsociety.com.au. Or by mail from the NSWCCL: www.nswccl.org.au