The Obscene Publications Act was introduced in 1959 and revised in 1967 (earlier versions of the act and no longer being in force). Famously (and unsuccessfully), used to attempt to ban publication of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, it has a chequered history in efforts to ban material dreamed by the state to be obscene. The OPA provides a test of “obscene” which permeates into other legislation and acts as a guide to regulators such as the BBFC.
Test of obscenity
(1)For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.
(2)In this Act “article” means any description of article containing or embodying matter to be read or looked at or both, any sound record, and any film or other record of a picture or pictures.
(3)For the purposes of this Act a person publishes an article who—
(a)distributes, circulates, sells, lets on hire, gives, or lends it, or who offers it for sale or for letting on hire; or
(b)in the case of an article containing or embodying matter to be looked at or a record, shows, plays or projects it, or, where the matter is data stored electronically, transmits that data.
(4)For the purposes of this Act a person also publishes an article to the extent that any matter recorded on it is included by him in a programme included in a programme service.
(5)Where the inclusion of any matter in a programme so included would, if that matter were recorded matter, constitute the publication of an obscene article for the purposes of this Act by virtue of subsection (4) above, this Act shall have effect in relation to the inclusion of that matter in that programme as if it were recorded matter.
(6)In this section “programme” and “programme service” have the same meaning as in the Broadcasting Act 1990.
The Act is fundamentally contrary to the principals of freedom of expression, criminalising the distribution of material depicting acts that are entirely legal to perform. The concepts of “Obscene” and the entirely subjective premise that such material is likely to “deprave and corrupt” are generally without foundation, and no genuine harm realistically materialises from people replicating many acts that have historically fallen under the definition (including lesbian cunnilingus, and use of the word cunt).
Proponents of the act point out that the jury assessed test is able to evolve with modern perceptions of morality and thus evolves with societal norms. This approach, even leading to reasonable verdicts in the court room, leaves individuals as guinea pigs in expensive and humiliating proceedings which can destroy lives even in the case of acquittal.
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