Censorship is not a specifically Sydney story, primarily because the legislation that governed the types of cultural products that people could consume – i.e. books, magazines, plays or films – was enacted at Commonwealth and State levels. Yet censorship legislation did have an impact on the cultural life of Sydney for much of the 20th century.

The Commonwealth Trade and Customs Act 1901, for example, placed restrictions on the content of imported products including printed media (books, magazines or comics, for example) and film (both still and moving).

The Customs Department maintained a list of banned publications that booksellers were not allowed to sell in their shops. Between 1901 and the early 1970s, there were up to 5000 books on the ‘banned list’ at any given time. The list included publications such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence, and Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Many of these books are considered pretty tame by today’s more permissive standards.

The maintenance of the ‘banned list’ was significant, because for much of the 20th century, most books sold locally were printed and published overseas and then imported into Australia – and this included books by home-grown authors, such as the artist Norman Lindsay’s book Redheap.

Although Australian censorship laws were largely aimed at the importers of cultural productions, customs officials also had the power to go through the luggage of private individuals suspected of bringing banned or illicit products into the country. This was commonly known as ‘dirty books detail’ because most of the censorship legislation dealt with publications considered obscene or pornographic.

Only a small number of items were banned because they were considered to be of a blasphemous or seditious nature, which was all the more surprising given that Australia was involved in a number of significant wars, and was fearful of the threat of Communism especially following World War Two.

Police raiding the Third World Bookshop in 1968
Police raiding the Third World Bookshop in 1968

Censorship laws were more concerned with preserving the moral standards of the community, rather than regulating politically subversive material. This was highlighted with the case of Bob Gould’s Third World Bookshop on Goulburn Street in the city.

Gould was the organiser of the Vietnam Action Group (VAC), which was opposed to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. His bookshop, which shared premises with VAC, was regularly raided by the police searching for illicit material under Sections 5-9 of the Obscene and Indecent Publications Act.

In November 1969, Gould and three others were charged ‘with selling obscene publications … and with printing an indecent picture’. The controversial publications were three poster prints by the 19th century artist Aubrey Beardsley and a photograph of the statue of David by the Italian artist Michelangelo, which had been sold to an undercover policeman. The shop was then raided by the police, who seized up to 300 of the posters. Although a book of Beardsley’s prints had been cleared by customs for sale, the case against Gould and his associates carried on for another five years.

The election of Gough Whitlam as the Australian Prime Minister in 1972 signalled a change in attitudes towards censorship nation-wide, especially as the banned list was reduced to zero. Today, in comparison to the 20th century, banned books tend to be those considered political, seditious or a threat to the Australian way of life, rather than publications of a salacious nature, which perhaps reflects a more permissive culture, but also Australia’s place in the political landscape in the 21st century.