The freedom of speech – lessons from DH Lawrence to al-Qaeda

When thinking on the topic of obscenity and censorship the first thing that enters my mind is a scene from The Simpsons where a school trip goes awry, the bus on which the children are travelling falls into a thunderous sea, dragging Otto the bus driver to his wet end, and landing the young to an isolated island off the coast of nowhere. Bart, ensuring his dominance among peers, puts everybody’s mind to rest: “We’re gonna live like kings! Damn, hell, ass kings!”


Authority and rules often make the compulsion to break them all the more delicious, in the absence of adults on the island, so Bart feels the urge to shout the forbidden. By no means should we rid ourselves of rules, even if this were possible, but in being realistic about the nature of rules, and the nature of people, rules are very often there to be broken.


So worried I am about repercussions I've concealed my face

This point is made all the more relevant on consideration of two things: November 2 2010 was the 50th anniversary of the acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial, and November 3 2010 was the day YouTube began taking down al-Qaeda videos after the British Government contacted the White House complaining about the material.


There are of course great differences between the two; the former was a piece of great literature. From the beginning of the trial in 1960 the book was made to be considered through the eyes of a hypothetical 14-year-old girl, the moral puzzle put to the jury was whether they would want young girls to read such filth, since it was pornographic, and more to the point, made a mockery of courtship.


Whether any girl of 14 desired to read it was beyond the point, this was the set standard of person for whom impression ought to be guarded. The clincher towards the end of the trial had been where the defendant called on the jury to ask themselves whether they would allow their children to read the book, remembering for a moment that they would consider their young to be of good education and stock, and thus not impressionable in the same way other young were – of other families, perhaps of a lower order. Was this what it had boiled down to? Was the anxiety of the book an issue of class?


The novel itself is a commentary on language, class and sex. Lawrence himself, in the preface to the book Apropos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, reminds his audience of the real point: “I want men and women to be able to think sex, fully, completely, honestly and cleanly.”


As Geoffrey Robertson QC pointed out in his article on the book and its trial: “Judges in 1960 regarded themselves, rather more than they do today, as the custodians of moral virtue. In performing this egregious function, they came to blur the distinction between literature and life.” Those judges who felt the novel explored sex in a manner rather dirty, with what had been described as “purple passages”, simply felt they could set the terms of what sex ought to be, to put a monopoly on what acceptable sex is for adults, in the confines of their bedrooms or indeed their minds.


Suspicion that the Judges were consumed by a snobbish view of sexual expression would not be unfair. A scene in the twelfth chapter of Lawrence’s book describes sex and language in a way obviously unfamiliar to many conducting the trial:


‘What is cunt?’ she said.


‘An’ doesn’t ter know. Cunt! It’s thee down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee, and what tha gets when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.”


All on’t,’” she teased. “Cunt! It’s like fuck then.”


Nay nay! Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter? – even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass!”


The jury’s verdict of not guilty on November 2 1960 was unanimous, and Penguin had even managed to get copies on sale by the late afternoon in Leicester Square. It was considered a pivotal stage in the free written word, but the debate on freedom of speech and print was something to emerge time and again, notably in the eighties and nineties with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and what has been called the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005.


The decision by YouTube to remove videos by al-Qaeda will be set in the context of the debate on freedom of speech versus protection of the impressionable. Though one often wonders whether the latter is a misinformed position to take, similar in its way to the use of the hypothetical 14-year-old girl in the Penguin Books trial, only this time we have the hypothetical Muslim internet user. By banning those videos we will only make them more sordid and sought after; indeed pirated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold for up to fifty dollars in the late twenties and early thirties after it had been banned in the United States, and sales of it sky-rocketed after the trial had ended.


This does not mean we tolerate things we find morally displeasing, but we need to learn the lessons of old; there is no rule book explaining what appeals to impressionable people any more than there is to explain why people like Abba, and in any case, banning something hardly ever nips its impression in the bud, and can often have the adverse effect.