Critics charge bill goes too far. CANADA'S ANTI-PORN FIGHT

At the Art Gallery of Ontario, curators placed a small drape on Rodin's bronze statue of a nude Adam. They weren't being prudish. They were protesting an anti-pornography law now moving through Parliament here. The Toronto gallery also put up notices besides 38 works of art stating: ``This material would be on restricted viewing or banned if Bill C-54 is passed.'' The protests were only taken down late last month.

Government officials maintain that the bill specifically exempts such works of art.

Even board members of the gallery held that the protest exaggerated the threat. William Withrow, director of the gallery, admits they may be right. But he does charge that the legislation attempts to kill pornography with a blunt instrument. ``They need a stiletto, not a battle-ax,'' he says. Mr. Withrow is specially concerned about the bill's impact on unknown, contemporary artists whose work has not passed the test of time.

Despite its huge majority, the Progressive Conservative government is taking a long time getting an anti-pornography bill passed.

When first introduced in June 1986, critics charged that its wording was vague and extreme. That original bill was allowed to die and a ``substantially rewritten'' bill introduced last year is drawing a somewhat more specific line between the legal and the illegal. But it remains controversial.

The new bill will:

Ban any visual matter depicting violent and ``degrading'' sex. The penalty for those selling or renting such material is up to 10 years in jail.

Limit access to ``erotica'' to those 18 and over in age.

Ban child pornography. Those engaged in the preparation of such pornography or in its sale are subject to sentences of up to 10 years in jail.

Richard Mosley, a senior general counsel in the Justice Department, admits that the term ``degrading'' is vague. So the legislation spells out its meaning in some detail for the courts. The law, for example, explicitly prohibits the visual presentation of consensual sex.

The opposition charges that the law presents non-exploitative and nonviolent sex ``as something wrong and evil.''

The Liberal parliamentary critic on this issue, Lucie P'epin, says the bill is too encompassing. She holds that municipalities should be left to regulate the availability of erotica.

Svend J. Robinson, a New Democratic Party member of Parliament, has introduced an amendment calling for the bill to be redrafted. He charges that the bill ignores the advice of two study groups appointed by the previous Liberal government.

Even some groups that have long supported tougher anti-pornography legislation oppose the bill as it stands. Louise Dulude, president of Canada's largest women's federation, wants the reference on consensual sex switched from the section of the bill dealing with pornography (which is banned) to the section on erotica (which is controlled).

However, Mr. Mosley notes the law does allow this defense: ``...the court shall find the accused not guilty if the accused establishes, on a balance of probabilities, that the matter or communication in question has artistic merit or an educational, scientific, or medical purpose.''

Mr. Withrow would like the onus of proof shifted to the government. He worries about gallery art being confiscated until it is able to prove the work has ``artistic merit.''

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