Back on the shelf

October 9, 1998

The threat of prosecution spurred a university to fight for its library rights. Peter Knight tells the tale.

Twelve months ago the police confiscated a book of photos by the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe from the library of the University of Central England. As vice-chancellor, I was threatened with a criminal prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.

The affair reached its finale a few days ago when I received a visit from Detective Sergeant Tonks and Detective Constable Flannaghan of the West Midlands Paedophilia and Obscene Publications Squad. Provided I signed a receipt, they were prepared to return the university library's copy of Mapplethorpe. Naturally I signed.

I thought it churlish to point out that the book was 11 months overdue and there was a Pounds 30 outstanding library fine. But I did say that the book looked a little "tired". The spine was broken and some of the photographs were now loose-leaf, not bound. The police maintained it was in that condition when they seized it. Nevertheless, I concluded that the book has been, how shall we say, "extensively researched". It will not go back on the shelves in that condition, and a new copy is on its way from Waterstones.

The book's seizure and the threatened prosecution should never have happened. The matter was referred to the West Midlands police by a photography developer who was asked to produce some prints of pictures a student had taken of images in the book for her undergraduate thesis. The images, which included pictures of naked children, were unusual - so it was not unreasonable for the police to investigate further.

However, once they found that the original images were in a university library book their powers of detection appear to have deserted them. They had only to open the front page to see that it had been in the library since 1993 and been withdrawn 24 times. Each picture was dated, so they could work out that the images were 20 years old. The young boy, "Jesse McBride", who appears in one is now in his early 30s. The pictures were set in Manhattan, slightly outside the jurisdiction of the West Midlands Constabulary.

None of these thoughts appear to have crossed anybody's mind. The book disappeared off to the Crown Prosecution Service, which studied it for five months and eventually proclaimed two pictures, "Helmut and Brooks" and "Jim and Tom Sausalito" obscene and contrary to the act. Why those two? There are others, equally shocking. "Marty and Veronica", for instance, clearly engaged in cunnilingus, do not appear to have worried the CPS. The selection of the two photographs leaves no other conclusion than that there is an element of homophobia in the CPS. Heterosexual sex appears to be acceptable, gay sex does not.

After the CPS's deliberations the police offered me what I can only describe as a grubby little deal. Everything would be all right if I agreed to destroy the book. It would have been inconceivable that any university would accept such an offensive infringement of its right to ensure that a variety of material is available to undergraduates.

After my refusal and an interview under caution at Digbeth Police Station, the CPS did nothing for nearly six months. Eventually the decision not to prosecute was made.

This unpleasant affair might have come to a less satisfactory conclusion had it not been for the advice of many, including the university senate and board as well as one of our crustier professors, who encapsulated the phrase "Principles are Priceless", which became our battle cry. Thanks too to our MP, Jeff Rooker, who ordered the Mapplethorpe book for the Commons library and seems to have shown it to several Cabinet members.

The nature of the offence that I could have been charged with was: that I would have caused to have been lent material that was likely to "deprave or corrupt" those who might reasonably expect to have access to it. I admit I had not paid the Obscene Publications Act 1959 much attention before. Now I am not convinced that any material in this day and age can be regarded as obscene by virtue of its likelihood to deprave or corrupt. That concept belongs to a set of social values probably outdated even when the act was passed. A welcome consequence off this affair would be to take the act of the statute book.

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

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