Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Wicked abuse of free speech

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 4.)
A good friend recently asked what I made of the fuss over Wicked campervans and their suggestive slogans.
He believes strongly in freedom of speech and knows that I do too. He thought the crackdown on the Australian-owned company looked disturbingly like a witch hunt.

Besides, he thought some of the slogans painted on Wicked’s vans were amusing. We need more irreverent humour, he argued.
I’m with him some of the way. But not far.

Where freedom of speech involves the right to express political opinions or to push literary and artistic boundaries, there is a legal presumption in its favour. It’s enshrined in our Bill of Rights Act.
But free speech has never been an absolute right. The American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, for example, that it didn’t entitle someone to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

Limitations on free speech vary across different societies and at different times, according to what the community finds acceptable. There will often be powerful countervailing arguments, and the challenge lies in getting the balance right.
By and large, I would suggest we have it about right in New Zealand. We are certainly an infinitely more liberal society than we were 40 or 50 years ago.

The great censorship battles of the 1960s and 70s are far behind us. That was the era when the prosecutor in the famous Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in Britain asked jurors whether D H Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel was one they would be happy for their wives or servants to read. His question was ridiculed as symptomatic of outdated paternalistic attitudes.
New Zealand had its own bizarre censorship controversies – none stranger than the film censor’s ruling in 1967 that a film adaptation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses had to be screened separately to male and female audiences.

These days it probably comes as a surprise to many people to learn that we still have a censor – which brings us back to Wicked.
A couple of weeks ago, chief censor Andrew Jack ruled that the slogans and images on three Wicked campervans were objectionable and banned those vehicles from New Zealand roads.

It’s unlikely to be the end of the matter. Further complaints may result in other vans from the company’s fleet being ordered off the road – in which case, good riddance.
The banned vehicles were decorated with eye-catching images showing well-known cartoon figures – Snow White, Scooby-Doo and Dr Seuss – appearing to use drugs.

Other Wicked vans display sexually suggestive slogans. One was turned away from Piha Domain Camp near Auckland because it was decorated with the words “Blow job better than no job”. Camping grounds at Kaiteriteri and Queenstown have also told Wicked van renters that they’re not welcome.
The censor’s decision was unusual for more reasons than one. For a start, it’s probably the first time a vehicle has been judged to be an objectionable publication.
The ruling was also notable because it’s relatively rare these days for the censor to use such a blunt instrument as a ban. But having found that the slogans and images were offensive, Jack had few options.

Wicked posed an unusual challenge because while people make a choice to watch a pornographic movie or read a sexually explicit book, Wicked campervans are in people’s faces whether they want to see them or not. An R16 restriction is hardly effective when the vehicles use public roads and are visible to everyone.
But the censor's job was made easier in the case of the allusions to drug use, because the images could be construed as encouraging criminal behaviour. Ruling on sexually suggestive slogans will be trickier because it calls for judgment on matters of taste.
A recurring concern is that curious children, seeing Wicked vans, are likely to ask their parents what the slogans mean. Even the most liberal parent would probably struggle to explain “If God was a woman, sperm would taste like chocolate” to an inquisitive eight-year-old. But fellatio, unlike drug use, is not a crime - so the issue becomes one of defining what's injurious to the public good or highly offensive to the public in general, to quote the relevant legislation.

I not only believe the censor got it right in the case of the drug-related imagery, but that he would be justified in ruling against Wicked's use of sexually explicit signage on the basis that it's highly offensive to most people (my friend excepted).
Freedom of speech is one of the defining characteristics of a liberal democracy, but this crass and arrogant Australian outfit (I say "arrogant" because it didn't even bother to defend itself when complaints were made against it to the Advertising Standards Authority) is unlikely to go down in history as a heroic standard-bearer for human rights.

If anything, the company debases free speech by nakedly taking advantage of it purely to be provocative and to attract attention for commercial gain. In this respect it’s strikingly similar to the Hell pizza chain.
Wicked’s lawyers were unable to advance any compelling defence of political or artistic freedom. Instead, they tried lamely to justify Wicked’s slogans and images as humorous parodies.

Admittedly humour is subjective, but Wicked’s misogynistic brand of wit is hardly worth dying on the barricades for. It’s a smart-arse, advertising-agency type of humour that appeals chiefly to sniggering schoolboys.
In fact one of the striking things about the Wicked controversy is that the company’s supposed humour has managed to offend almost everyone, liberals as well as conservatives.  

My one reservation is that it was the police who took the complaint against Wicked to the censor and who will have the responsibility of enforcing his ruling. There’s a potentially dangerous blurring of roles here.
The job of the police is to enforce criminal law, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling uneasy about the prospect of them exercising power over matters of judgment and morality. No doubt they would argue that their intervention in this instance was justified on the basis that the campervans appeared to condone criminal activity, but I hope their involvement ends there. We get enough finger-wagging lectures from them already.

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