When a book is worth a sentence

March 27, 1998

Peter Knight explains why he is prepared to risk prosecution in defence of a homoerotic book he had never heard of until four weeks ago

In December 1993 an event occurred that caused turmoil in the orderly life of the University of Central England. Someone in the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design bought a library book. The Pounds 75 book, Mapplethorpe, celebration of the life of the contemporary photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, was published by Jonathan Cape and authorised by the Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Mapplethorpe died from Aids in 1989. The Mapplethorpe Foundation was established to safeguard the copyright of his images and to use the proceeds for Aids research at a Boston hospital. The book was lent from the university's library on 22 occasions. On the 23rd, in October 1997, a third-year student who borrowed it took some photographs to illustrate her art and design essay. The photo lab forwarded her prints to the West Midlands Police, who seized the book and sent it to the Crown Prosecution Service. After five months' deliberation the CPS reached the decision that two images in the book contravened the Obscene Publications Act, in that they were likely to deprave and corrupt.

The police approached the university with what they believed was a routine request. If the university agreed to destroy the book nothing more would be said. The police genuinely had no concept of the significance of the request they were making of the university and the university could not understand why the police did not anticipate the uproar that would inevitably follow its stand. Staff and students objected strongly to any suggestion that a book should be destroyed simply because of its content.

There is no doubt that some of the images portrayed in Mapplethorpe, as well as being of remarkable photographic quality, depict acts that are homoerotic and sadomasochistic. However, the police action raised the traditional concerns about whether the state should have the right to forbid adults to view particular images.

As a statutory body the university must comply with the law. It must balance against that duty its obligation to ensure that staff have access to such material as is necessary to teach the curriculum to students. The problem for the university is that the only way to ascertain whether or not the book is obscene is for a trial to take place and a jury to decide.

Both the publisher and I, as vice-chancellor of the university, were interviewed by the police. I voluntarily went to the police station with the university's solicitors and provided a statement after being cautioned in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. This is not a trivial matter.

We have had over 100 letters in favour of our policy not to agree to the destruction of this book and only one critical letter. There is a widespread view in society that is wholeheartedly opposed to the premise upon which the 1959 Obscene Publications Act was based - that a particular artistic image could be likely to deprave or corrupt. Perhaps our society has matured significantly since 1959 and is no longer prepared to accept that the state should act as censor of these types of image.

Is it strange in this information age that we still regard books as icons of knowledge? Perhaps in time we will be able to abstract our defence of knowledge away from the medium in which it is presented so that we defend CD-Roms and videos with the same enthusiasm with which we defend books. This is particularly important in the case of the Mapplethorpe photographs.Having asked the librarian to conduct a search, I now know that one of the two contested images, Saucelito, is contained in two other books on our shelves and on the Mapplethorpe CD-Rom, of which we have two copies. Where this leaves the university and the West Midlands Police is an interesting question but it is for them to take the initiative.

There is also the academic freedom argument - that the university needs to make available to its staff and students a wide range of images in art in order to develop students' analytical skills. Yet this argument, however legitimate, concerns me. After all why should universities be the sole guardians of the defence of knowledge and freedom of speech? In a mature society should not all adults be able to decide for themselves whether they wish to have access to particular images? The defence of academic freedom, however legitimate, seems to place academics above the public and I find that an uncomfortable argument for a university to articulate. Let us not ask for a privilege for ourselves that we do not fight to make available to others.

My final comment is personal. A breach of the Obscene Publications Act is not a civil offence, it is a criminal one. The university will not be charged, I will be. If the CPS decides to proceed with this matter, I will be arrested, charged and tried for breach of the Obscene Publications Act. If this happens, I believe it is appropriate that I, as vice-chancellor of the university, should take the consequences whatever they may be. Sometimes a line has to be drawn in the sand and I am proud to draw that line in defence of a book that four weeks ago I had never seen and never heard of.

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, Birmingham.

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