Canadians debate tougher antipornography law

Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and other such American magazines may soon have to bear opaque covers when displayed on Canadian newsstands visible to the general public. Such a cover requirement could occur under a tougher antipornography law proposed by the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

The law was first introduced in June, in response to the nation's increasingly vocal aversion to pornography, particularly publications depicting violent or ``unnatural'' sexual behavior.

Critics, however, held that wording of the bill was vague and extreme. Even some proponents of sterner law felt the proposal went too far.

Canada's Justice Ministry argued that much of the criticism was the result of misinterpretation. Nonetheless, it took back the bill for rewording. The bill is to be reintroduced to Parliament sometime next month.

Canada's laws and regulations against pornography are already stricter than those of the United States. Indeed, most pornography in Canada originates in the US. But the law would apply to pornography whatever its place of origin.

Some provinces sponsor film boards that censor movies. Others classify movies according to what they consider suitable audiences.

Also, Canadian customs officials confiscate publications they consider obscene at the border. As a result, publishers of some American magazines often described as ``soft-porn'' remove pages of more explicit material before sending magazines to Canada.

The Canadian bill bans the production or distribution of child pornography, making it a crime punishable with up to 10 years in prison to use anyone under the age of 18, or who appears to be under that age. The law makes it an offense to possess child pornography, even if there is no intent to sell or distribute it commercially. It also bans portrayals of degrading or violent sexual behavior.

The more controversial provision of the bill attempts to define pornography by listing several visual images that would become illegal. The law exempts material that ``has a genuine educational or scientific purpose or is a work of artistic merit and that an appropriate warning notice as to the nature of the material was displayed.''

This wording prompted critics to allege that this would ban the common movie depictions of sex, and even of hugging and kissing. Francine Finlayson, a Justice Ministry official, disagreed, saying the movies would qualify as having ``artistic merit.''

Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, objects both to the ``vague language'' and the basic philosophy of the bill. He notes the bill will leave it up to customs officials, police, and the courts to decide which depictions have ``artistic merit'' and which do not.

Mr. Borovoy argues it would be better for the public to take the risk of having to deal with some ``trash'' than face the risk of ``excessive censorship.''

Maude Barlow, founder of the Canadian Coalition Against Media Pornography, says that Canada is different from the United States in that Canadians insist that their government provide ``freedom from'' such things as pornography or guns, while Americans emphasize their individual ``freedom to'' do as they wish.

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