By Kelley Bryan


Freedom of Expression
Censorship of Sexually Explicit Material
Conclusions and Challenges


The BC Library Associationís Intellectual Freedom Committee defines "censorship" as:

The act or system of changing the content of, or restricting or prohibiting access to information because an individual or organization finds the information unacceptable; the deliberate attempt of governments, churches, groups and individual persons to prevent others from freely expressing themselves.

That definition raises several questions. What laws create the "system" of censorship? Who makes censorship decisions? In what circumstances is it legitimate to "prevent others from freely expressing themselves"?

This backgrounder will set the stage for a discussion of these questions. It begins with a general discussion of freedom of expression, then examines two major areas of censorship: book-banning in schools and censorship of sexually-explicit material.

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The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all people in Canada freedom of expression, subject only to those reasonable limits that can be justified in a free and democratic society.

What is expression?

In 1990, in the case of A.G. (Québec) v. Irwin Toy, the Supreme Court of Canada held that "expression" includes any activity that attempts to convey meaning and that is non-violent.

Why protect freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is essential to democracy. The ability to exchange ideas and spread opinions is vital to peopleís participation in social and political decision-making.

Also, freedom of expression promotes individual growth and self-fulfillment. As individuals, we discover ourselves by expressing our views and exploring different options.

Censorship is one way of limiting freedom of expression. According to the Charter, any limit on a freedom must be "justifiable in a free and democratic society." The following discussion aims to stimulate thought on whether censorship is, indeed, justifiable in Canada.

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Censorship in schools can be both overt and covert.

Overt censorship happens when some authority (a school board, provincial or federal government, or booksellers) bans books. When a book is banned, bookstores must remove the book from their shelves, schools must withdraw all copies of the book, and copies of the book cannot pass into Canada at the border.

Past book-bans provide an interesting cross-section of Canadian values:

  • In 1970, the Cranbrook school board banned Flowers for Algernon as being "filthy and immoral."
  • In Manitoba in the 1970s, the Virden school board considered banning To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, Brave New World, 1984, and Who Has Seen the Wind, because they used "profane language."
  • Catcher in the Rye was the target of censorship debate because it was "seditious" in teaching disrespect for the adult establishment.
  • In Huron County, Ontario, Margaret Laurenceís book, The Diviners, was banned in 1978 because it was "heretical".

As Canadian values changed over the years, the types of books banned also changed:

  • In 2001, the CEO of Indigo Books and Music Inc. ordered the removal Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, from Chapters and Indigo outlets across Canada. She stated, "We believe it's hate literature and we don't carry hate literature in the store."
  • Young adult literature in the last few decades has started to openly address issues of sex, birth control, sexually-transmitted infections, pregnancies, drugs, violence, homosexuality, alcohol, and suicides. Judy Blume was the most censored author in the US. Her books, including Are You There God? Itís Me, Margaret, deal with teen anxieties during puberty.

Covert, or hidden, censorship is more subtle. It occurs when one book is chosen over another, although neither book is explicitly "banned". Bias in the selection of educational materials may be a form of censorship, because many groups consider themselves to be under-represented. For example, teachers of 17th-century literature have typically chosen to teach Shakespeare. In doing so, they are "censoring" many other 17th-century writers: women authors, non-British authors, gay authors, non-white, non-Christian authors. This choice may be a reflection of Shakespeareís calibre as an author. However, it also reflects the fact that, historically, people tended to value adult, white, male, Christian, British, heterosexual authors who write in English.

Covert censorship also includes self-censorship by teachers, who may shy away from using books that may be controversial.

Case Study: Protecting Students from Ideas about Same-Sex Parents

A recent book-banning issue arose in BC in the case of Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No.36. In January 1997, James Chamberlain, an elementary school teacher in Surrey, submitted three books for Board approval for use in his Kindergarten-Grade 1 class. The books were: One Dad Two Dads Brown Dads Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine, Asha's Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michel Paulse, and Belinda's Bouquet by Lesléa Newman and Michael Willhoite. Children in the books had families with same-sex parents. (All three books are available at the Vancouver Public Library). 

The Board decided to ban the books for use in all Surrey classrooms, on the grounds that they were not appropriate.  The books remained in school libraries, but could not be used in classrooms.

Interest groups in BC began to "take sides" on the issue. Civil liberties and gay and lesbian groups, as well as parents of Chamberlain's students opposed the ban.  Church groups took the opposite stance.

In 1997, a coalition of people and interest groups filed a petition against the Board in the BC Supreme Court.

In court, Joseph Arvay, the lawyer for the petitioners, argued that the Board's decisions violated the School Act of BC, which states that all schools must be conducted on strictly secular principles. Mr. Arvay also argued that the Board violated the Charter guarantee of freedom of expression.  The Boardís lawyer, John Dives, argued that the books made moral statements about homosexuals that conflicted with some of the parent's religious beliefs. Madam Justice Saunders ruled in favour of the petitioners. She stated that the Board was influenced by religious belief and, thus, acted against section 76 of the School Act.

The Board was successful in an appeal to the BC Court of Appeal.

In 2002, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Mr. Arvay argued that public school boards have a duty to counter potential sexual harassment of children with homosexual parents by introducing gay-positive messages into the classroom. Mr. Dives countered that the Board had the right to determine that Grade 1 is too young to introduce students to the idea of gay parenting.

On December 21, 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Board had not considered the proper factors in imposing the ban on the books. The Court held that "parental views, however important, cannot override the imperative placed upon the British Columbia public schools to mirror diversity of the community and teach tolerance and understanding of difference." The Board should have considered not only the interests of the parents who opposed the books, but also the interests of parents in same-sex families and their children. The Court decided that the School Board should re-consider its decision in light of those principles.

On June 12, 2003, after six years of controversy and over $1 million in legal costs, the Board voted again to ban the three books. In making their decision, the Board went through a long list of criteria to evaluate the books, and excluded the books for poor grammar, inappropriate content, scope and depth.

On June 26, 2021 the Surrey School Board announced that it had accepted two other books featuring same-sex parents as recommended resources for Surrey classrooms.

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Should freedom of expression include the freedom to access pornography? In the past, many feminist groups felt that porn should be censored, because they felt that porn was degrading to women. They wanted porn retailers to be charged with the crime of "obscenity" (section 163 of the Criminal Code). In the case of R. v. Butler, the Supreme Court of Canada returned to the idea that expression includes any activity that attempts to convey meaning and that is non-violent. In an attempt to compromise between censorship and freedom of expression, the Court broke pornography into three categories:

  1. explicit sex with violence is "obscene";
  2. explicit sex without violence, but with "degrading or dehumanizing" behaviour is sometimes "obscene"; and
  3. explicit sex without violence that is neither degrading nor dehumanizing is not "obscene" unless it involves children.

This "obscenity" framework raises many questions. We may all have different ideas of what is "obscene". Whose idea of obscenity gets to be imposed on everyone else?

Case Study: Protecting Our Borders from Books

A gay and lesbian bookstore in Vancouver, Little Sisterís Book and Art Emporium, took that very question all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. At the Canadian border, Customs officials have the responsibility of stopping "obscene" books from coming into the country. Little Sisterís claimed that Customs officials were systematically targeting the store, so that many materials ordered by the store were being wrongly delayed, confiscated, destroyed, damaged, prohibited, or misclassified. Little Sisterís felt that the Customs officers, probably biased against homosexuals, would be more likely to find gay and lesbian literature "degrading or dehumanizing" and, therefore, "obscene".

For instance, in 1985, Little Sisterís entire Christmas order did not pass through Customs Ė including books written by Oscar Wilde and an anthology of ancient Greek poetry. During the early days of AIDS, Customs even labelled books on safe sex as "obscene". Even books that could arguably prevent a teen suicide Ė such as advice on how to tell your parents you are gay Ė were detained at the border. Furthermore, Little Sisterís was incensed by the idea that the book-buying, as an important aspect of gay liberation, was being stifled; after all, it argued, heterosexuals are everywhere in pop culture, while gays and lesbians are already under-represented.

Customs officials are minor civil servants with, at that time, no special training in what is "obscene". Thus, Little Sisterís protested that crucial censorship decisions were being made subjectively and arbitrarily by individual Customs officers encased in their own preferences and biases.

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed that Little Sisterís had been unfairly targeted. In that sense, the bookstore won the case. However, the Court did not agree that censorship should not be done by Customs officials. To date, the Customs Tariff still allows Customs officers to determine what books should come into the country.

This form of censorship has been widely criticized. Why should minor civil servants have the immense power of regulating the flow of ideas and images into Canada? Also, what is the rationale behind spending tax dollars to protect the borders from paper copies of porn, while porn is easily accessible wherever an Internet port exists?

More fundamentally, if government is supposed to be secular and neutral, what business does it have imposing sexual orthodoxy and attempting to control Canadiansí sexual imagination?

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The Surrey School District and Little Sisterís case studies show how freedom of expression is limited in Canada. Even though the plaintiffs in those cases "won", the administrative structure did not change. School Boards still have the power to decide what students may read, and Customs officials still have the power to decide what is too "obscene" for Canadians to read.

Censorship is a battle over intellectual freedom. It affects everyone in Canada. Censors tell people in Canada what they can read. They tell authors what they can write. They regulate the spread of imagination from original thinkers who may move society forward.

However, all of these censorship activities may be perfectly acceptable under certain circumstances. Canadians must know and question what those circumstances are. We should know where those rights and freedoms "end" Ė what crosses the line and what doesnít?

Placing limits on rights and freedoms requires us to strike a delicate balance between the interests of many competing groups in Canadian society. The courts, our governments, and our school boards have tackled this difficult task. However, power in Canada rests with the citizens. We have the obligation and the privilege of examining our own values and deciding if we agree with the way censorship laws affect us.

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A.G. (Québec) v. Irwin Toy, 2002 SCC 84, online: LexUM team at University of Montreal <www.lexum.umontreal.ca/csc-scc/en/rec/html/gosselin.en.html>.

Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, 2002 SCC 86, [2002] S.C.J. No. 87 (Q.L.), online: LexUM team at University of Montreal <www.lexum.umontreal.ca/csc-scc/en/rec/html/chamberl.en.html>.

Little Sisterís Book and Art Emporium v. Canada (Minister of Justice), 2000 SCC 69, online: LexUM team at University of Montreal <http:www.lexum.umontreal.ca/csc-scc/en/pub/2000/vol2/html/2000scr2_1120.html>.

R. v. Butler, [1992] 1 S.C.R. 452, online: LexUM team at University of Montreal <www.lexum.umontreal.ca/csc-scc/en/pub/1992/vol1/html/1992scr1_0452.html>.


Jean E. Brown, Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools (Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994).

Judith Dick, Not in Our Schools?!!! School Book Censorship in Canada: A Discussion Guide (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1982).


BC Civil Liberties Association, online: <www.bccla.org>.

BC Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee, online: <www.bcla.bc.ca/ifc/censorshipbc/intro.html>.

Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE), online: <www.egale.ca>.


Little Sisterís vs. Big Brother, directed by Aerlyn Weissman, produced by Cari Green (Vancouver, 2002). 71 minutes. Available from: Moving Images Distribution, 606 - 402 W. Pender St., Vancouver, B.C., V6B 1T6, phone 604-684-3014, website <www.movingimages.ca>.