In Australia, government goons broke into a shop and seized copies of Cannabis Culture Magazine from the shelves of a prominent bookstore. The name of the bookstore was Polyester, and it has been in business for over a decade without a single police raid.
On the morning of December 22, 1999 eight men in suits, from the police, customs office and the Australian Office of Film Literature and Classification, arrived at Polyester Books and served the store’s owner, Paul Elliot, with a search warrant. Then they began to load over $3,000 worth of Elliot’s merchandise into the back of a van. In addition to Cannabis Culture Magazine, the officials also took The Marijuana Grower’s Guide, The How-To Crime Book, The Anarchist Cookbook, High Times Magazine, Death Scenes, Practical LSD Manufacture and various videos including Clockwork Orange.
“The officers suggested that some of the material I had would be okay if I was an R-Rated Adult store with a curtained off area and warning stickers on publications wrapped in plastic,” explains Elliot. “We had a lively conversation about how I disliked that kind of ‘furtive’ merchandising and explained that I ran my shop on the basis of common sense in that most people would realize what kind of material we sold. Especially with ‘Totally weird shit’ painted on the outside of the shop. Adults are treated like children.”
Charges have yet to be laid against Elliot, but he foresees a lengthy and costly court battle. The search warrant for his shop referred to the Publication, Films and Computer Games Enforcement Act of 1995, which provides for a maximum of ten years in jail or a fine of up to $120,000.
Polyester Book representatives believe that the raid on their store was meant to send a message about the government’s tough new approach to censorship. The political climate changed when the Australian government drafted laws censoring internet sites that they deem illegal, or even just “offensive”. The resulting Online Services Amendment Act (OSA) came into force on January 1 of this year. Like Singapore ? which is infamous for its harsh and oppressive censorship laws ? Australia has a broadcasting authority to enforce their new censorship regime. Under the new laws, the Australian Broadcasting Authority has the power to threaten anyone hosting an offensive internet site on their server with $27,500 in fines per day. Also like Singapore, Australia has included provisions to block overseas sites from their country.
“We do have some constitutional protection of political speech,” Australian media law academic David Lindsay told Cannabis Culture, “It has been derived by implication from the Australian constitution. But we have nothing like the Canadian Charter, or the US First Amendment.
The lack of entrenched freedom of speech and a growing moral-conservative trend leads to some unusual quirks in the Australian legislative process. The legal team that developed the Online Services Amendment Act were guided by Professor Peter Sheehan, the vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University; and the law was eventually approved by a group of elected state and federal censorship ministers, a ministerial post unheard of in most parliamentary democracies.
Unless the Australian people demand the fundamental democratic freedom of speech, their government will likely continue to become oppressively more and more like the government of Singapore.
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