Allegedly Harmful: UK Injunction Patrols the Fine Line Between Freedom of Speech and Child Welfare

In early October the Court of Appeals in the UK issued an injunction, halting the publication of an unnamed memoir on the grounds that if distributed its “allegedly harmful” content could be “likely to exert a catastrophic effect on [the author’s son’s] self-esteem and…cause him enduring psychological harm.”

In a time where everyone (including an 11-year-old child diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s) is a single mouse click away from virtually any bit of information, whether it be benign or not, the fear is that with the book’s publication the content will obtain an enduring and threatening permanence. Extractions, quotations, and the book itself will be made freely available, and the fact that in this case a “vulnerable” child might come across these materials and could potentially suffer risk usurps the author’s right to publish and his freedom of speech.

The book in question is a semi-autobiographical memoir recounting the sexual abuse that the author suffered as a child. By its very nature the subject matter is undoubtedly unpleasant. Similar to other memoirs from victims of abuse, though, the book isn’t solely about the horrible experiences that the author endured. According to the publisher:

[The book] is an important and valuable piece of work, written by someone who has found a way through difficulties associated with childhood abuse and mental health problems. [The publisher] believes that the author has much to offer to the those currently wrestling with such issues, as has already been demonstrated by his writings and broadcast experiences, and that the [Work] is a serious contribution to public discussion about them.

The intended audience for the book is not children, and beyond a dedication to his son the book doesn’t reveal personal information about the child or his own conditions. Rather, according to the author, the writing of his story represents a form of coping and healing he hopes in sharing will help others. As the advocacy group English PEN writes:

The memoir deals with the author’s past experiences of sexual abuse and explores the redemptive power of artistic expression. It has been praised, even in court, as striking prose and an insightful work…Its publication is therefore clearly in the public interest and may encourage those who have suffered abuse to speak out.

If the true intention of the book is to allow the author a space to reflect on his past and for him to offer an empathetic shoulder to those with similar experiences, where exactly does the argument for the potential psychological “harm” to his son arise? As court documentation points out, the book is neither particularly violent nor is its primary focus the obscene nature of the crimes committed against a very real individual in the past — both things it might be argued that in their graphic nature if read by a child might be distressing. But at the same this same argument could be said for an adult who reads the book, or really anyone who has not encountered similar experiences as the authors. If the book is not a reckless or graphic display of abuse, what about it then warrants its censorship in the guise of protecting the welfare of a child?

According to the Injunction’s Conclusion, it is the fact that the book “in its present form will constitute intentional conduct [which will cause] psychiatric harm” that is the issue. In layman’s terms, the book, as a written physical document, has intention — it presents a particular point — and it is the fact that, by its very nature, it has the potential to put forth an idea that might be harmful that it should not be printed? What can be gleaned from these documents is that the injunction is less about the child being physically harmed and more about the fact that a book with “allegedly” unsavory content exists. The “child” in this case has become the scapegoat through which individuals are enabled to suppress socially disagreeable and unpleasant subject matters.

This is not the first time that books have been censored and suppressed with the illusory “child” in mind. Libraries and schools across America and around the world deal with this “potential” harm on an almost weekly basis. The media is constantly recounting stories of schools pulling books from their shelves, the revising of summer reading lists, and outright banning books all-together based on the fact that their content deviates from “socially acceptable” discourses. From books like The Fault in Our Stars to established classics, an outsider looking in might perceive this increase in reading regulation to be a growing epidemic plaguing our modern world.

This in not entirely the case, though. For as long as books have been around steps have been taken to suppress those that propagate ideas deemed unacceptable by society. From the censorship of Shakespeare and other playwrights in the 17th century to contemporary cases like the legislative banning of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn based on its era-specific representations of race and class, as long as the written word has existed there have always been individuals who have used their social and government influences to have books censored.

Moreover, around the turn of the century, when children began working less, were encouraged to attend school, and had more disposable free time to consume things like books, magazines, and newspapers, there was a noticeable shift in censorship discourse, moving away from books as harmful to society to focusing on book as being harmful to children. With “young adults” giving way to the concept of “the child,” social and governmental agencies could use this illusory and undefinable entity as a gateway to further propagate certain social discourses at the expense of suppressing the written word that didn’t agree with those ideas.

In 1884, attacks on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn became less an issue of racial depiction and more demonstration and encouragement of juvenile delinquency. According to the March 10th 1884 New York Tribune:

The work of the dime novel is being performed with even more than the usual success. The other day three boys robbed their parents and started off for the boundless West…The class of literature which is mainly responsible for all this folly is distributed all over the country in immense quantities, and it is distinctly evil in its teachings and techniques. The heroes of the dime novel are almost always thieves, robbers and immoral characters, and the heroines are no better. The stories abound with descriptions of brutality, cruelty and dishonesty…Through reading this pestilent stuff a great many boys are undoubtedly put fairly in the road to ruin. They insensibly acquire a crooked moral vision…They pine for opportunities to emulate the heroes they are reading about.

Shortly thereafter, the New York Evening Post reports:

As if in direct response to this challenge, Senator John Gilbert soon introduced into the New York State Legislature a bill prohibiting ‘the sale or exhibition of indecent publications devoted to criminal and police news and criminal deeds, tending to corrupt the morals of youth.’

Outside of the literary world though, the same urge to censor in the guise of child protection has been applied to the comic book industry with the implementation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and even the censorship of the internet with the passing of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2001.

Like so many cases of censorship, suppression, and book banning that in some way involve children, though, we always encounter the inevitable conundrum: At what point does protecting our children’s welfare and shielding their eyes from the perceived unsavory parts of the world justify the limiting (or outright silencing) of creators’ freedom of speech and expression?

It is this very issue that educators, parents, and now the UK judicial system are outwardly and vocally being forced to battle more and more. In an age of information sharing and easy access to the internet although a child’s “risk of exposure” has exponentially increased so has the necessity to defend and protect creators’ rights and their content — especially those whose books and works are threatened with censorship due to the “alleged” harmful threats they might pose to children.

With the advent of the internet the personal freedom of information sharing has inadvertently given way to social information regulation. That being said, though, groups like English PEN, the National Collation Against Censorship, and CBLDF have also arisen to promote freedom of speech and expression. “Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read.” This is the headline for the English Pen’s mission statement, and along with advocating these basic creator’s rights, they also strive to educate and insight action in the general public to take a stand against the historically unjust censorship of the literary world.

This is not to say that freedom of speech and expression should come at the expense of a child’s welfare. Rather, as the UK Court of Appeals particularly struggled to determine in this case, in this increasingly connected world, parents and caregivers need to learn to pay closer attention and take a more active role in the daily lives, experiences, and educations of our children in order to help them more critically disseminated the information to which they inevitably will be exposed.

In a multifaceted world, black-and-white generalizations about what is good and bad cannot be assumed. Moreover, if the confusing conclusion to injunction enacted by the UK Court of Appeals is any indication, legal action to suppress freedom of speech in order to protect children is simply the band-aid cure for a larger issue at hand: As opposed to public monitoring, to what extent is it the responsibility of the parents themselves to monitor and “best endeavor to protect the child from any information…which would have a detrimental affect on the child’s well-being”?

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!