Award-winning young adult novel banned in New Zealand

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The New Zealand Herald (Simon Collins) reports:

New Zealand's censorship review board has slapped an interim ban on a book for the first time since the current law was passed 22 years ago, potentially igniting a new wave of restrictions on sexually explicit books.

The president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, Dr Don Mathieson, QC, has issued the Interim Restriction Order banning the sale or distribution of Auckland author Ted Dawe's award-winning novel for teenagers Into the River until the full board can consider whether the book should be restricted….

The novel won the top 2013 Children's Book Award in New Zealand, but has apparently been criticized because of its description of teenage sex and drug use, and its use of vulgarities. Radio New Zealand News and CNN (Euan McKirdy) have more.

If you're interested in how this would come out under U.S. law, the answer is that no such ban—temporary or otherwise—would be constitutional. Works can't be obscene under U.S. law unless, taken as a whole, they are highly pornographic (as this book apparently isn't), and in any event any work with "serious scientific, literary, artistic, or political value" couldn't be obscene (and, vague as that standard might be, it's clearly satisfied here). I think it likely wouldn't even be seen as "obscene as to minors"; even distribution of the book to minors thus likely couldn't be stopped, and certainly not distribution to adults. School libraries need not buy the book, and they could likely even remove it from the shelves once it's bought (if the removal is based on the sexual or drug-related content, as opposed to the viewpoint that the book expresses). Whether public libraries could do the same is an open question. But outright bans, even applied to private booksellers, libraries and others, would clearly violate the First Amendment.

[UPDATE: I had meant to note this, but forgot until a commenter reminded me—for the closest analogy in recent American history, see the 1997 Oklahoma City Tin Drum incident, which led to a court decision holding that the movie was indeed protected; see Camfield v. City of Oklahoma City (10th Cir. 2001) for more on that.]

Thanks to Robert Dittmer for the pointer.