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Censorship In Paradise: New Zealand Thought Police Seize Books From Loompanics, by Russ Kick

In 1997, Loompanics published The New Zealand Immigration Guide, which spoke very highly of the beautiful, secluded island-nation. Apparently, New Zealand will not be returning the compliment.

The government of New Zealand has decided that publications from Loompanics are not welcome in the country, and it's currently persecuting a married couple for the "crime" of ordering some books.

New Zealand has a lot of things going for it. Located southeast of
Australia, it enjoys a temperate climate and by all accounts, is one of the most gorgeous spots on earth. Comprised of two main islands and some smaller ones, its total land area is about equal to Colorado, with 9,400 miles of coast. The population is approximately 3.9 million, with a stunning 99 percent literacy rate. Its economy is robust, and military
spending is only 1.1 percent of the GDP (the figure for the U.S. is 3.2
percent). New Zealand pretty much keeps to itself. You don't hear very much about it, with the major exceptions of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and Russell Crowe, both products of this other land down under. For someone looking to get away from it all, New Zealand is pretty tempting.

Except for one thing: It doesn't have a great track record when it comes to civil liberties for its citizens. This isn't too surprising, considering that, like Canada, New Zealand used to be a part of the British Empire. (Not that the U.S. is anywhere close to perfect, but at least we have recourse and codified protections.) It declared independence in 1907 and now has a parliamentary democracy, but its people are still subject to national controls that would be (and are) fought against in the US.

Many types of guns are legal, but strict licensing is the law. Movies must be approved by a government body before they can be released. Books aren't subject to that level of suppression, but the situation is still ugly. You see, New Zealand has a governmental agency called the Office of Film and Literature Classification, created by a 1993 law which unified the previous three agencies in charge of suppressing various media. Although the Office's name is classic Orwellian doublespeak, the title of the agency's head is hilariously forthright: Chief Censor of Film and Literature. That position is currently held by a lawyer from (where else?) Canada.

The Office leaves no stone unturned in its search for deviance and
subversion: Among the media it "classifies" are "films, videos, magazines, computer discs, video games, CD-ROMs, printed clothing [i.e. tee-shirts], posters, sound recordings and playing cards." According to the agency's Web site:

"Each time the Classification Office makes a classification decision it
must consider whether the availability of that particular publication is
likely to be injurious to the public good. In doing so, the Classification
Office must also consider the dominant effect of the whole publication,
impact of the medium of the publication, character of the publication,
intended audience for the publication, purpose of the publication. Under the Classification Act, the Classification Office is deemed to exercise expert judgment when making these decisions."

The criteria used by the Office to ban material include "acts of torture," "sexual violence or sexual coercion," "sexual conduct with or by children," and "promotes or encourages criminal acts or acts of terrorism." Some of the most ominous no-nos are:

"degrades or dehumanises or demeans any person" and

"represents that members of any particular class of the public are
inherently inferior to other members of the public by reason of any
characteristic of members of that class being a characteristic that is a
prohibited ground of discrimination specified in the Human Rights Act 1993."

Moving images (i.e., movies and video games) are the only form of media that must be viewed, judged, and labeled before being (hopefully) released to the public. All others can be released without passing through the censorship process, although the Office warns: "However, these publications must still comply with the law. In this case, the onus of responsibility rests on the person who intends to supply a publication to ensure that he or she is supplying it appropriately. As one option, a person can choose to submit the publication for classification" [emphasis mine].

In other words, guilty until proven innocent. Or, in this case, a book is
assumed to be objectionable until the publisher or bookseller can prove that it's safe for the populace. Although written material doesn't have to be classified before being released, any government body or private citizen can request that a publication be reviewed. Many retailers try to avoid hassles by labeling their books in advance, which usually involves putting warning stickers on them (much like the music industry "voluntarily" does with records in the U.S.).

During the 1999-2000 fiscal year, the Office banned four books. It also
classified four others, five magazines, and one booklet as R18, meaning that no one under 18 may buy, possess, or even look at them. The number of books banned undoubtedly will be higher in 2001-2 fiscal year, if the case of John and Daniela Setters is any indication.

Married Couple Raided for Books

The Setters are a married couple living in Mount Maunganui, a town of about 14,000 people located on the coast of northern New Zealand. Through the Websites of Loompanics www.loompanics.com and the Dope Fiends.com Bookshop, www.dopefiends.com, they ordered several books on drugs. Their first two orders--one from each bookseller--made it to them unscathed.

Their third, fateful order was to Loompanics for Psychedelic Chemistry by Michael Valentine Smith. But that package isn't what showed up on their doorstep. On February 1, 2002, at 6:30 in the morning, five customs officers climbed the front gate and pounded on the Setters' door. Once inside, the kiwi feds searched the place. "When we asked what was the reason for the search warrant," John says, "the one in charge asked us if we knew a company called "Loompanics" (apparently well known by New Zealand Customs) and mentioned the book Psychedelic Chemistry, ordered in my name, as the cause for the raid."

The agents seized the following books from the Setters:

The Big Book of Buds: Marijuana Varieties From the World's Great Seed Breeders by Ed Rosenthal (Quick American Archives)

The Big Book of Secret Hiding Places by Jack Luger (Breakout Productions)

The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories by Jack B. Nimble (Loompanics)

Magic Mushrooms Around the World: A Scientific Journey Across Cultures and Time by Jochen Gartz (Luna Information Services)

Opium for the Masses by Jim Hogshire (Loompanics)

Peyote: And Other Psychoactive Cacti by Adam Gottlieb (Ronin Publishing)

Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide by O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric (Quick American Archives)

Aside from Psilocybin, none of these books has been classified by the Chief Censor, but the customs agents considered them "likely to be
objectionable." This was obviously enough to justify the seizure of these books and harassment of the Setters. The agents also snatched some issues of Cannabis Culture magazine, which is legal, surprisingly enough; a vaporizer, a device for inhaling the active compounds from "herbs"; the Setters' laptop computer; and three pot plants, which were basically treated as no big deal. For possession of cannabis, John paid a mere $350 fine (that's New Zealand dollars; in US currency, the fine was $155). It would appear that the Setters are in much more trouble with the State for the books they read than for the marijuana they owned. (Interesting side note: Although the authorities seized three pot plants, Daniela says that when the evidence was presented in court, it had mysteriously shrunk to two plants. This commonly happens to drugs that are seized.)

The feds kept the Setters' computer for a month, rifling its hard drive for more forbidden info. They undoubtedly never would've given it back had the Setters not hired one of the country's top lawyers, Paul Mabey, to handle the matter. Revealing a staggering lack of work duties, rather than being shipped via UPS, the computer was returned by the agent in charge of the operation, who had to drive seven hours from Auckland to deliver the laptop. The round trip obviously took two entire work days, but Customs inspectors appear to have a lot of time on their hands. Daniela reports that when she asked if she and John were actually going to be prosecuted over some books, the agent said, "Well, since we had to come all the way out here...."

Singled out as particularly "disturbing and dangerous" was How To Steal Food From the Supermarketby J. Andrew Anderson (Loompanics). But the fun didn't end there. For two months after the raid, the authorities opened all of the Setters' mail from overseas, seizing none other than the Loompanics catalog itself. Daniela and John were told that the catalog "contains some books that are 'objectionable'."

As Daniela sums up their unfortunate lesson in government power: "We thought such deprivation of freedom of information only still occurs in communist, Muslim, and Third World countries, but we were so bloody wrong!"

What Next?

As this article goes to press, John is waiting to hear from the Customs
agency. When they get around to it, they'll demand that he show up at the time and place of their choosing and answer all questions to their
"satisfaction." He has no right to remain silent or otherwise avoid
possible self- incrimination.

Afterwards, the government will decide whether to press charges. If they prosecute, John is looking at a $2,000 fine (U.S. $893) per book. This could result in a grand total of U.S. $7,144 for the eight books. It could be U.S. $8,037 if they nail him for the Loompanics catalog, too.

Perhaps John should be thankful that he only bought the books, rather than sold them. Under kiwi law, people involved in the commercial trade of "objectionable" books face not only the fines but also one year in prison for each book sold. I think we can safely guess one country where Mike Hoy, Gia Cosindas, and the rest of the Loompanics crew will not be moving anytime soon.

Perhaps John should be thankful that he only bought the books, rather than sold them. Under kiwi law, people involved in the commercial trade of "objectionable" books face not only the fines but also one year in prison for each book sold.

Upside Down in More Ways Than One

Let's emphasize one of the lessons we've learned about New Zealand: If you get caught with three marijuana plants, you will pay a $350 fine. If you get caught with three books about marijuana, you will pay a $6,000 fine. Kiwi tokers, if they're prudent, may want to stick to just smoking the stuff rather than reading about it.

As if all this weren't twisted enough, it should be noted that although the magazines High Times, Cannabis Culture, and Heads are all legally on sale in New Zealand, books about illegal drugs are verboten. (It was through ads in these magazines that the Setters found out about Loompanics and Dope Fiends.) This is a bizarre switch, since books typically enjoy more free-speech protection than periodicals. It's more proof that, like their brethren elsewhere, the Thought Police in New Zealand have their heads up their asses. No matter how balmy and beautiful the locale, this is the preferred position for all censors.

Russ Kick is the editor of Everything You Know Is Wrong, You Are Being Lied To, and other books.