I read a book and you won’t believe what happened

This is Freedom to Read week, which is an important time because it’s when we get to talk about how crappy censorship is. It’s about intellectual freedom and the rights we all have as Canadians to read what we want to read, and, perhaps more importantly, to say what we want to say. This is probably the most important right we have in democratic societies. We have the freedom – the *right* to criticize our government. We have the right to disagree with the church, or indeed to not have to observe any specific religion or any religion at all. This is huge. This is a lot of power.

Intellectual freedom is the right to have whatever ideas you want. To express those ideas. To disagree with others’ ideas. It’s the right to have access to information, even if it’s information your government or your parents or your church doesn’t like. It’s integral to any free and democratic society.

Lots of folks say they think censorship is bad, but then they start qualifying it. Like they say, “well, sure, you have the right to say what you want but there have to be rules; children shouldn’t be exposed to pornography”. Dear God won’t someone please think of the children. I can think of at least a dozen things that a kid could see that’s worse than boobs and schlongs and pussy. People will say “you shouldn’t be allowed to say things that are offensive”, and they’re wrong.

We already have laws to protect children from boobs and schlongs and pussy. You know, the really DANGEROUS things. We have laws to protect people from exploiting children, so we have, I assure you, already thought of the children.

When it comes to what you should and should not be “allowed” to say, the only thing you shouldn’t be allowed to do is to advocate violence. And guess what!? In Canada, you *aren’t* allowed to advocate violence! You’re also not allowed to promote hate! But, like, let’s look at all the things you ARE allowed to say!

…actually, that’s a lot of things. If you take advocating violence and promoting hate out of the equation, you can actually say ALL OF THE OTHER THINGS. That’s pretty cool, when you think about it.

All of that is pretty straightforward, and if you’ve been around here for any length of time, you’re probably tired of hearing me go on and on about the importance of free speech and intellectual freedom. So I’m going to throw a wrench in the gears. Let’s talk about publishing.

Saying things is one thing. Being able to read what you want is one thing. But what if you’re a publisher, and you’re making a business decision about the commercial viability of a book? Publishers aren’t in the business of publishing just for the sake of being able to see a book with a cover on it. Publishers do what they do because that’s their business. Every book that’s out there is out there because someone thought it would sell.

So why would a publisher produce a book with offensive or distasteful content? Why would a publisher choose to produce something like Colin Thatcher’s account of how he didn’t murder his wife (Colin Thatcher was found guilty of murdering his wife in 1983; after his parole in 2006, he wrote a book proclaiming his innocence. That book was published by Canadian publisher ECW Press in 2009, prompting the Saskatchewan government to enact legislation similar to laws in several other provinces making it illegal for someone to profit from talking about their crime. Thatcher relinquished the advance he’d received from his publisher to the Saskatchewan government, and the publisher forwards all royalties from the sales of the book to the Saskatchewan government.

Currently there’s hullaballoo about convicted serial killer Wassisname Picton in BC writing a book professing his innocence, which was published by someone in the States who claims not to have known anything about the crime. The rumour is that Wassisname penned the book while in prison, and *smuggled the manuscript out* (I don’t know why he’d have to do this, since it’s not illegal to send mail from prison, and it’s not illegal to write books about what you did, and it’s not illegal to write fiction (such as “I didn’t do the thing I’ve been convicted on several counts of doing”). I’m not sure if I believe the whole espionage/smuggling a manuscript out of prison angle, but I also don’t really care. I’ve heard people are up in arms about why this book was “allowed” to be published. Why Colin Thatcher was “allowed” to publish his fictional account of  his own innocence.

They’re ALLOWED to write what they want because they have rights. Their publishers are ALLOWED to publish those manuscripts because it’s not illegal to publish offensive stuff. It’s not illegal for people who have done horrid things to write about those things. Why would someone publish that? Because people will buy it. Because people want to read it. Because we sensationalize crime. 2/3 of the programs on cable television are true crime or serialized crime fictions. People want it, so businesses capitalize on that demand. You might find it distasteful or even morally wrong (but don’t lecture me on the morals or ethics of business practice if you’re also going to lecture me on how there’s nothing unethical about exploiting your employees and refusing to let them unionize), but that’s business. If someone will buy something, someone will sell it.

Should convicted criminals be able to write about their crimes? Absolutely. Should publishers be able to publish those books? They must be able to. Should they profit from the proceeds of the books?

That’s a question I can’t answer. Or rather, that’s a discussion for another time.

The point I’m making is that yes, people should write what they want, and there’s nothing wrong with publishing anything that isn’t promoting violence or hate.

 

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

9 Comments

  1. I don’t know why he’d have to do this, since it’s not illegal to send mail from prison,

    I don’t know the details of how it works in Canada, but my guess is you’re kidding yourself.

    We don’t have any legislated rights to free speech in Australia but the High Court has ruled that we do have them implicitly (at least if we’re media organisations). However, as in Canada, there are caveats. The details vary a little from state to state but all of them have some version of the proviso that prisoners aren’t allowed to mail out material that might be interpreted as threatening or distressing to anyone – especially their victims. This isn’t enforced legislatively but executively, which in practice means a bored and cowardly prison bureaucrat reads all the outgoing mail of prominent prisoners and bins anything that might conceivably feature in the evening news. There is no way a high profile convicted killer or sex offender is going to get out a story that seriously challenges the narrative approved by the court that convicted him – especially if it suggests the conviction arose due to malfeasance or incompetence.

    Like I said, I’m not familiar with the situation in Canada, but I know from other prison activists that very similar systems operate in the UK and New Zealand. So I’d be happy to put up a few hundred bucks at even money that says you Canucks practice a very similar form of Westminster “democracy” as it applies to the civil dead you keep behind bars.

  2. As Mark Twain said, all Americans have the absolute right to free speech and the good sense to never exercise it. I’m sure it’s not just the yanks who employ an army of bureaucrats to ensure those who aren’t sensible are never heard.

    (Speaking of freedom of speech, did you know your blog didn’t allow me to post my original comment until I’d trimmed the above para? WordPress tells me you’ve misconfigured your blog and Firefox says your certification is stuffed).

      1. Yeah. There seems to be two things happening.

        The first is that there’s something up with the website certification. Firefox considers it unsafe to post data to and I had to include it as a specific exception to get it to work.

        The second is that the comment box opens in a kind of frame. Once you’ve put in enough comment lines the ‘Post Comment’ button has moved below the bottom of the frame and can’t be clicked. As far as I can tell there’s no provision for scrolling the whole frame down to the button.

        As you know I’ve posted lots of comments to your blog in the past and have never struck these problems before (nor with any other WordPress blog). But as the second problem only manifests for long comments it may have been there all along but I’d never struck it. I’m sure the certification issue is something new though.

  3. Another good example of how ‘free speech’ works when it comes up against judicial opinion is in the case of the murder of Janine Balding.

    In what would be comical in a Three Stooges script but is tragic in real life the court convicted the wrong “Shorty”. As everyone actually involved in the killing, one of the killers was a homeless youth called Mark “Shorty” Wells. But after the first arrested perpetrator informed on “Shorty” the cops went out and picked up another disturbed young man called Stephen “Shorty” Jamieson. When Shorty was brought in the other accused all started ridiculing them for getting “the wrong Shorty”. But Jamieson is an unlikable figure – a victim of foetal alcohol syndrome who looks like an ape, blusters and acts out violent fantasies (e.g. that he’s a former special forces soldier with multiple kills to his name) and a self-professed Satanist. The murder was particularly gruesome and attracted non-stop media coverage for months so authorities were under a lot of pressure to get a quick conviction. So Shorty went down for life. At the time that would have meant 20-30 years, perhaps less with good behaviour, but later legislation retrospectively altered it to “life means life” – so Shorty is unlikely to ever walk free.

    The relevance?

    A former colleague of mine named Peter Breen wrote a thoroughly researched and referenced book on the case that would have left little doubt to most readers that an outrageous miscarriage of justice occurred. So the courts ordered all copies of the books impounded and pulped (including my personal copy).

  4. The punchline?

    Peter Breen is himself a criminal lawyer with decades of experience. At the time the book was pulped he was also an elected member of the upper house of the NSW parliament.

    I guess that’s what you call “separation of powers” under Westminster.

      1. I thought I was already as cynical as it was possible to be about the electoral plutocracies we live under in the West. Then I started prison activism …

        What I learned over and over again is that like the right of black people to go about their business without being gunned down by cops our so-called ‘democratic rights’ only exist inasmuch as there are authorities prepared to enforce them for you. If you’re a member of a neglected or vilified minority you’ve got sweet FA chance of finding anyone willing and able to ensure the nice things written in the statute books to reassure the white middle class will apply to you.

        The judiciary is mostly interested in protecting its own fading authority and credibility, which arise primarily from an ongoing pre-enlightenment ritual akin to a Shakespearean costume drama. As Lord Denning remarked upon the eventual acquittal of the Guildford Four, “British justice lies in ruins” (during a previous appeal he had flatly refused to entertain the notion that police may have tortured the prisoners and manufactured their confessions in order to gain convictions). The main function of the judiciary is to hide those ruins under horsehair and silk and to do so they need the connivance of politicians and the media. So they’re not about to fly in the face of those power centres no matter how grotesque their decisions must be.

      2. Supposedly independent oversight bodies such as ombudsmen, coroners and commissions of inquiry know full well that they are not to challenge the dominant narrative in any than the most token ways. NGOs and independent politicians who might do so are either co-opted or marginalised and ridiculed (Peter Breen is a figure of vilification in the Australian media and was subjected to a trumped up corruption investigation that collapsed due to a complete lack of evidence but nonetheless kept him tied up and silenced for much of his time in parliament).

        The pillars of power in our society only give shallow lip service to concepts like democracy and legal rights. They may be enforceable for the elites and, to a much lesser extent, the obedient middle class but true democracy has always horrified those who call the shots. Those who originally drafted our constitution and legal systems are no exception. They considered true democracy to be ‘mob rule’ and instead built a thin facade designed to placate sufficient people to create a semblance of consent to their essentially unaccountable rule. Elections aren’t to give voice to the people. They are to ensure that no-one gains high office without being beholden to those who fund campaigns and control public discourse.

        The game has pretty much run its course now. The middle classes are shrinking and being gutted of economic and political power as the elites gather ever more to themselves and invest an increasing proportion of it into maintaining their privilege. Both the upper and lower classes already know what passes for democracy in the West is little more than a sick joke on those it oppresses. It’s only the diminishing educated middle class who are still fooling themselves.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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