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Censorship isn't just outrageous, it's futile

I wanted to write with gleefully self righteous indignation about the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB) charging Glad Day Bookshop for carrying an unclassified porn video, and also for the board’s banning of the French film Baise-Moi (Rape Me).

But when I started to think about the big picture, I realized the wind has been taken out of my rhetorical sails. There are no noble ethical arguments left pitting freedom of expression against the horrors of censorship. Niggling about what mix of sex and violence might or might not be appropriate, or whether artistic merit is a redeeming factor, makes for titillating conversation at a dreary dinner party. But it’s a hackneyed approach in these technologically driven times.

Global networks like the Internet, the satellite TV universe and even DVDs, have made most arguments about the regulation of images and ideas moot. All kinds of unregulated images, shocking and delightful and awful, are being viewed in Canada right now. They go undetected and unpoliced because they’re being viewed on new media.

Canadian censors, like Canada Customs and provincial film review boards, do not have the ability to police new media, even if we wanted them to. Instead, they’re left playing games with the distributors of old media like home video and theatrical performances.

By doing so, they’re playing favourites with certain businesses and certain consumers. But they’re no longer controlling what we Canadians see – which makes the bullying all the more frustrating.

The gay and lesbian community knows all about selective censorship. Little Sister’s bookstore in Vancouver has been in the courts for more than a decade arguing it has been unfairly targeted by Canada Customs over the books and videos it brings to Canada; titles seized on the way to Little Sister’s often arrive without problem to more mainstream retailers.

New media’s free reign takes the discrimination one step further. You may not be able to rent your favourite video at your local Ontario video store, but you can watch it on the Internet – maybe even for free at a public library terminal. Whatever corrupting forces might be lurking in naughty books and videos are available on anyone’s PC desktop. Just not their VCR. Soon the two appliances will be the same. What then?

The OFRB still has no system that ensures all DVDs have been approved (unlike videotape, where a master tape is approved for use in Canada and is then duplicated).

The resulting disparity is an attack on specific businesses providing the images, not the images themselves. Content doesn’t matter; picking on certain channels of distribution does.

The bullying extends to occasions where censors haven’t even seen the film. In April, the board charged Glad Day for carrying the gay porn video Descent without the board’s approval sticker. (The store is making a constitutional challenge of the charge; see the story on page 15). The punishment maxes at $100,000 and a year in jail. The board hasn’t even suggested that Descent might merit banning; it hasn’t been reviewed.

What’s being achieved here? Ontarians who want to see Descent will still see it – on the Internet, on DVD or by other means. Whatever nastiness censorship was meant to protect us from is here already.

The lesson the OFRB wants to teach Glad Day is to play the sticker game, that it should cough up its review fees, protection payment-like, without complaint, that it should expect to pay hundreds of dollars of reviewing charges per video to serve its relatively-small customer base, that serving minority interests is a profit-less endeavor.

Glad Day is instead choosing to fight the bean-counting censors in court, hoping to show that the adminstrative niggling discriminates against the gay and lesbian community. A noble effort.

A cheaper option is to abandon the old media, and the censhorship that goes with it,and go on-line. The board certainly doesn’t have the public support or the technology to catch up.

Paul Gallant is Features Editor for Xtra.