Censorship in the United Kingdom
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British citizens have a negative right to freedom of expression under the common law. In 1998, the United Kingdom incorporated the European Convention, and the guarantee of freedom of expression it contains in Article 10, into its domestic law under the Human Rights Act. However there is a broad sweep of exceptions including threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace (which has been used to prohibit racist speech targeted at individuals), sending another any article which is indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause distress or anxiety (which has been used to prohibit speech of a racist or anti-religious nature), incitement, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to religious hatred, incitement to terrorism including encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications, glorifying terrorism, collection or possession of a document or record containing information likely to be of use to a terrorist, treason including advocating for the abolition of the monarchy (which cannot be successfully prosecuted) or compassing or imagining the death of the monarch, sedition, obscenity, indecency including corruption of public morals and outraging public decency, defamation, prior restraint, restrictions on court reporting including names of victims and evidence and prejudicing or interfering with court proceedings, prohibition of post-trial interviews with jurors, time, manner, and place restrictions, harassment, privileged communications, trade secrets, classified material, copyright, patents, military conduct, and limitations on commercial speech such as advertising.
- 1 Ministry of Information
- 2 Laws on obscenity and sexual content
- 3 Stage Licensing Act of 1737
- 4 Libel law
- 5 Blasphemy law
- 6 National security
- 7 Prior restraint
- 8 Self-regulation of publication
- 9 Censorship by medium
- 10 Specific cases
- 11 George Orwell
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 External links
Ministry of Information
The Ministry of Information was created during the First World War and then reformed for the Second World War for propaganda purposes. In the Second World War it was located at the Senate House of the University of London. During the Second World War it was infamous for having a staff of 999.
The Ministry was responsible for keeping much information out of the public domain during the war years, as it was thought that this would have been harmful to the national sentiment. It also censored many press reports that were not deemed to be sufficiently patriotic, or that listed military operations to a level of detail that could be used by the enemy.
The Ministry took over the General Post Office Film Unit, renaming it the Crown Film Unit. It produced documentaries such as Target for Tonight (1941), Western Approaches (1944) and London Can Take It! (1940). It also created a feature-length fictional film; 49th Parallel (1941). Following this it solely created documentaries, although it also laid down propaganda guidelines for commercial films.
The Ministry was disbanded following the end of the Second World War.
Laws on obscenity and sexual content
Obscenity law in England and Wales is currently governed by the various Obscene Publications Acts, and Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 but obscenity laws go back much further into the English common law.
The conviction in 1727 of Edmund Curll for the publication of Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock under the common law offence of disturbing the King's peace was the first conviction for obscenity in Great Britain, and set a legal precedent for other convictions.
A defence against the charge of obscenity on the grounds of literary merit was introduced in the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The OPA was tested in the high-profile obscenity trial brought against Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover (by D. H. Lawrence) in 1960. The book was found to have merit, and Penguin Books was found not guilty – a ruling which granted far more freedom to publish explicit material. This trial did not establish the 'merit' defence as an automatic right; several controversial books and publications were the subject of British court cases throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. Last Exit to Brooklyn, a 1964 novel by American author Hubert Selby, Jr. was subject of a private prosecution in 1966.
There is a substantial overlap between legal erotic literature and illegal pornography, with the distinction traditionally made in the English-speaking courts on the basis of perceived literary merit. No prosecutions of purely textual pornography took place following the Inside Linda Lovelace trial of 1976 until October 2008 when a man was charged (but later cleared) under the Obscene Publications Act for allegedly posting fictional written material to the Internet describing kidnap, rape and murder of pop group Girls Aloud (the R v Walker trial). In late August 2005, the government announced that it planned to criminalise possession of extreme pornographic material, rather than just publication, and the law came into force as Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
Almost all adult stores in the UK are forbidden from having their goods in open display under the Indecent Displays Act 1981, which means the shop fronts are often boarded up or covered in posters. A warning sign must be clearly shown at the entrance to the store, and no items can be visible from the street. No customer can be under eighteen years old. The Video Recordings Act 1984 introduced the R18-rated classification for videos that are only available in licensed sex shops, but hardcore pornographic magazines are available in newsagents in some places. The Ann Summers chain of lingerie and sex shops recently won the right to advertise for workers in job centres, which was originally banned under restrictions on what advertising could be carried out by the sex industry.
Stage Licensing Act of 1737
In 1737, partly as a result of political attacks by Henry Fielding against Robert Walpole, Parliament enacted a law that established "the Examiner of the Stage" to censure plays on the basis of both politics and morals (i.e. sexual impropriety, blasphemy, and foul language). Plays had to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. In 1737, through the influence of the Duke of Grafton, the Shakespearian commentator Edward Capell was appointed with an annual salary of £200 as deputy-examiner of plays. This censorship by licensing requirement was abolished by the Theatres Act 1968.
According to Rufus Osgood Mason (who gives an example of a written license from 1814):
Charles Kemble, later in life, received the appointment of "Examiner of Plays." The duties consisted in reading the plays which had been accepted by the managers of the different theatres, to see that they contained nothing objectionable either on the score of politics or morals. Those that were approved were reported to the Lord Chamberlain who issued the license.
England and Wales have relatively strict libel laws ("defamation" in Scotland) in that they are often considered pro plaintiff with the defendant asked to prove that they did not commit libel. Compensation awards for libel are also unlimited, in contrast to those for personal injury. Further controversy surrounds the libel laws with regard to costs. Whilst costs can be awarded the ability both to bring and to defend libel cases is often considered to be restricted to the wealthy. Conversely it is possible to initiate a "no win – no fee" case against a wealthy individual or organisation if the individual bringing the case has insignificant assets as even if the case is lost the wealthy individual or organisation are unable to recover their costs. Typically in such cases an out of court settlement is forced upon the wealthy individual or organisation.
A recent example is the case of Simon Singh's lawsuit, where author and journalist Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for criticism of chiropractic therapy which rested on a summary of recent scientific research. Singh has been able to pursue a legal defence because of his earnings from four best-sellers.
In another case the UK based academic publisher Equinox was forced to remove a peer reviewed academic article from its publication International Journal of Speech Language and the Law. The article "charlatanry in forensic speech science" was a metastudy of lie detector research and came to the conclusion that lie detectors don't work. The Israeli manufacturer of lie detectors Nemesysco forced the publisher to remove the already published article from the online databases and the journal was also forced to publish an apology in a later issue.
On 15 March 2011, a "Draft Defamation Bill" (CP3/11) was published by the Ministry of Justice with an accompanying "consultation paper containing provisions for reforming the law to strike the right balance between protection of freedom of speech and protection of reputation." (Close date: 10 June 2011)
Blasphemy against Christianity was long an important part of British censorship, with the unwritten common law containing an offence of blasphemous libel. Prosecutions were rare, however, the last one being the 1977 Gay News legal case Whitehouse v. Lemon. Later developments around the turn of the 21st century put the continued viability of blasphemy prosecutions in doubt. The offence was definitively abolished on 8 May 2008.
Critics claimed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 could hinder freedom of speech. Leaders of major religions and race groups as well as non-religious groups such as the National Secular Society and English PEN spoke out in order to campaign against the Bill. Comedians and satirists also fear prosecution for their work. However, a late amendment to the Act as a result of these campaigns reads: "Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practicing their religion or belief system."
There are several Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament for the protection of official information, mainly related to national security. The latest revision is the Official Secrets Act 1989 (1989 chapter 6), which removed the public interest defence by repealing section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. In 2004, a memo containing details of a possible US bombing of broadcaster Al Jazeera was leaked to the press. Attorney General Peter Goldsmith has warned newspapers that they could be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act if they publish the contents of the memo, saying "You are reminded that to publish the contents of a document which is known to have been unlawfully disclosed by a crown servant is in itself a breach of section 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1989".
The Terrorism Act 2000 makes it an offence to collect or possess information likely to be of use to a terrorist. Bilal Zaheer Ahmad, 23, from Wolverhampton, is believed to be the first person convicted of collecting information likely to be of use to a terrorist, including the al-Qaeda publication Inspire.
Beyond obscenity law, there have been a number of organisations whose main function was to approve material prior to distribution.
Plays and theatres had long been licensed by the Crown prior to 1737. Licensure of a playhouse, however, only gave a general patent. The crown had no ability to censor before plays were performed. Under the provisions of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 as extended by the Theatres Act 1843, the Lord Chamberlain's Office was able to censor plays. This role continued until the Theatres Act 1968 abolished the practice following several cause célèbres, and a long campaign by the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan among others.
The British Board of Film Classification is the de facto film censor for films in the United Kingdom; since films not rated by the BBFC cannot be shown in most cinemas, or distributed as videos or DVDs, lack of BBFC approval generally makes productions of such films uneconomic.
- In the case of films shown in cinemas, local authorities have the final legal say about who can watch a particular film. Almost always local authorities accept the Board's recommendation for a certificate for a film.
- Under the Video Recording Act 1984, almost all video recordings must be classified by an authority chosen by the Home Secretary. This classification is then legally binding. Since the introduction of the Act, the BBFC has been the chosen authority. Certain works such as those that are related to sport, religion or which are designed to educate can be exempt from classification by the BBFC under the act.
The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre pre-approves most British television advertising (under Ofcom rules, other broadcasters can also approve their own advertising content, but most rely on the BACC). The Advertising Standards Authority is the regulatory advertising body, but can only prevent the republication of advertisements after upholding complaints from the general public.
The advent of the Internet access has made the act of censorship more difficult, and there has been a relaxation of censorship in recognition of this. BBFC guidelines have been relaxed further to allow the limited distribution of hardcore pornography under an R18 certificate, partially because of this, and partially because of a recognition that public attitudes have changed. Further confirmation of this change in attitude was provided by the French film Baise-moi, which was given an 18 certificate despite showing scenes of unsimulated sexual activity.
Ofcom is now the regulatory body for UK television, radio, and telecommunications services since the abolition of the Independent Television Commission. Ofcom exerts its powers under the Communications Act 2003. The government's new requirements for Ofcom only require it to ensure adherence to "generally accepted standards" and prevention of harm, removing the former requirement to adhere to standards of "taste and decency".
Self-regulation of publication
A number of industries carry out what is known as self-regulation. Self-regulation seeks to keep content within the bounds of what is publicly acceptable, thus preventing government intervention to bring about official regulation. Some of the areas they are concerned about include obscenity, slander and libel. There is no clear line between self-regulation in matters of expression and self-censorship.
Censorship by medium
Freedom of expression and protection of privacy over the Internet is guaranteed by UK law. Nonetheless, over the last few years there has been a shift toward increased surveillance and police measures. Combating terrorism and preventing child abuse have been widely used by state agencies and private commercial actors (e.g., Internet service providers) to justify the implementation of interception and direct filtering measures. Nevertheless in 2010 the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) found no evidence of technical filtering in the political, social, conflict/security, or Internet tools areas. The U.K. openly blocks child pornography Web sites, for which ONI does not test.
98.6% of UK internet traffic consume a service called the child abuse image content list which uses data provided by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify pages judged to contain indecent photographs of children. When such a page is found, the system creates a 'URL not found page' error rather than deliver the actual page or a warning page.
In July and again in October 2011, the UK High Court ruled that BT Retail must block access to a website (newzbin.com) which "provides links to pirated movies". In September 2011, in response to the court ruling and with encouragement from government, leading UK ISPs are reported to have privately agreed in principle to quickly restrict access to websites when presented with court orders. In May 2012 the High Court ordered UK ISPs to block The Pirate Bay to prevent further copyright infringing movie and music downloads from the website. Soon after, the High Court ordered UK ISPs to block other websites linking to, or endorsing online 'piracy', such as KickAss Torrents (kat.ph).
Since the end of 2013 a rolling program has been in place to ensure that most households in the UK have pornography and other material (such as suicide, alcohol and violence-related content) filtered from the Internet by default unless a household chooses to receive it. This follows an announcement by the Prime Minister David Cameron on July 22, 2013.
During The Troubles in Northern Ireland the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 regularly stopped or postponed the broadcast of documentaries relating to Ireland. A Real Lives documentary for the BBC, "At the Edge of the Union" was temporarily blocked in August 1985 by direct government intervention from the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan which led to a one-day strike by the National Union of Journalists to defend the independence of the BBC.
From November 1988 to September 1994, the voices of Irish republicans and Loyalist paramilitaries were barred by the British government from British television and radio. This necessitated the use by broadcasters of an actor 'revoicing' the words which had been spoken by interviewees or at public meetings by the affected groups. The case of the unmade After Dark in 1988 with Gerry Adams is also relevant. The ban was lifted a fortnight after the first Provisional Irish Republican Army ceasefire, on 16 September 1994. The ban could not be enforced for the duration of election campaigns.
Censorship of music on the airwaves was in effect the power of the BBC. A full list of songs banned on the BBC can be seen here List of songs banned by the BBC. Some songs were banned for containing sexually explicit lyrics, or promoting the use of drugs. Some songs were banned for political reasons such as Paul McCartney and Wings song Give Ireland Back to the Irish in the 1970s, or in the 1980s Christy Moore's, Back home in Derry since it was written by Bobby Sands.
In 1949, the BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide For Writers and Producers (commonly known as "the Green Book") was issued by the BBC to its producers and writers of comedy. Among things absolutely banned were jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind, suggestive references to honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, ladies' underwear (e.g. ‘winter draws on’), prostitution, and the vulgar use of words such as "basket". The guidelines also stipulated that "..such words as God, Good God, My God, Blast, Hell, Damn, Bloody, Gorblimey, Ruddy, etc etc should be deleted from scripts and innocuous expressions substituted."
In April 2013, after the death of Margaret Thatcher, the song Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead from The Wizard of Oz (1939 film), rose to number two in the BBC Radio 1 UK singles chart as many people bought the song to celebrate the former PM's death. The BBC refused to air the full song however, with only a small clip being played on the hit chart show.
The introduction of controversial video games featuring photo-realistic images, such as Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, led to calls from the tabloid press for games to fall under the Video Recordings Act. The UK games publisher trade body ELSPA responded by introducing a voluntary age rating system in 1994. The ELSPA ratings were succeeded by PEGI in 2003.
Nevertheless, although games are generally exempt from the Video Recordings Act, those depicting sexual content, or gross violence towards people or animals, must still be submitted to the BBFC for consideration. BBFC ratings are legally binding, and British law imposes stiff penalties on retailers who sell to under-aged customers. However, the Act was discovered in August 2009 to be unenforceable. The rating system is to be reviewed as part of the Digital Britain project.
Carmageddon, in which the gameplay involved mowing down innocent pedestrians, was the first game to be refused classification in 1997, effectively banning it from sale. The game's publisher, SCI, had a modified version created in which the pedestrians in question were replaced by green-blooded zombies, which completed a successful appeal against the BBFC to overturn their original decision. The uncensored, unmodified version of Carmageddon was later released under an 18-certificate.
In 2002 the Io Interactive game Hitman 2: Silent Assassin was withdrawn by a number of retailers due to religious sensitivities. The area in question involved a Sikh sect that were depicted as terrorists involved in arms smuggling and assassination. It also involved a section that many Sikhs believed to closely resemble the 1984 massacre at the Amritsar temple.
In 2004, the parents of a murdered 14-year-old boy blamed Manhunt as having been "connected" to the murder. It was later found not to be, as the game was found in the victim's home, rather than the killer's. Leicestershire police "did not uncover any connections to the computer game." The accusations prompted some retailers to remove the game from their shelves. Nevertheless, following this incident the sales of the game rose due to the free publicity from newspaper headlines. The sequel, Manhunt 2, released in 2007, was banned from being sold in the UK by the BBFC. On appeal to the Video Appeals Committee this ruling was overturned however the BBFC launched a successful judicial review into the VAC's decision, forcing the VAC to reconsider its judgment. On 14 March 2008, the VAC again recommended that the game be released, a position to which the BBFC agreed. The game is now available.
In June 2007 the PlayStation 3 game Resistance: Fall of Man was criticised for the use of Manchester Cathedral as one of the games' backdrops. Sony, the publisher of the game, responded by saying "Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is aware of the concerns expressed by the Bishop of Manchester and the cathedral authorities... and we naturally take the concerns very seriously. Resistance: Fall of Man is a fantasy science fiction game and is not based on reality. We believe we have sought and received all permissions necessary for the creation of the game."
- In 1873, controversy over the depiction of William Ewart Gladstone, Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke, and Acton Smee Ayrton in W. S. Gilbert and Gilbert Arthur à Beckett's The Happy Land led to the play's licence being revoked by the Lord Chamberlain. A censored version of the play was eventually allowed to be performed, but uncensored scripts, with the censored portions printed in all capital letters, were printed by the theatre's manager. The play became a smash hit.
- In 1922, the novel Ulysses by James Joyce was banned in the United Kingdom when it was declared obscene.
- In 1963, in the Profumo Affair, the government instituted criminal proceedings against Stephen Ward to stifle press comment under the sub judice rule concerning the sexual relationship between the War Minister John Profumo and Christine Keeler, who was having a sexual relationship with Yevgeny Ivanov a Soviet Naval Attache and alleged spy.
- In Autumn 1972, Lord Longford and Raymond Blackburn decided to pursue a matter of pornography classification for the film Language of Love into the Court of Appeal of Lord Denning, MR, and lost the writ of mandamus against the Police Commissioner, who had refused to intrude upon the BBFC remit.
- In 1985, the British government attempted to ban the book Spycatcher by MI5 officer Peter Wright because of the sensitive material it contained. Several British newspapers attempted to report on its principal allegations, but were served with gag orders. They persisted and were tried for contempt of court, charges that were later dropped.
- In 1995, Prince Charles obtained a court injunction that prevented his former housekeeper Wendy Berry from publishing her tell-all book about his marital troubles. After publishing her book "The Housekeepers Diary" in the United States, Berry left the UK to avoid contempt-of-court charges.
- In December 2004, controversy surrounding the play Behzti sparked violent protests leading to the play's cancellation. A controversial scene set in a Sikh temple included rape, physical abuse, and murder. Some members of the Sikh community found the play deeply offensive to their faith.
- On 15 January 2008 it was announced that the trial of Wang Yam, accused of murdering Allan Chappelow, would be held 'in camera' on the grounds of the administration of justice and national security. This was the first UK murder trial held behind closed doors. The UK press were prohibited from speculating as to the reasons for this order.
- In 2008, the poem Education for Leisure was removed from the AQA Anthology, after complaints were received. The poem explores the mind of a person who is planning to commit a murder.
- Starting in 2008 the press were barred from printing the names of concerned parties in the murder of Baby Peter, a 17-month old boy. Websites which published the names of the defendants and the boy came under police investigation for conducting an "internet hate campaign." On 10 August 2009 the ban was lifted.
- In 2011 a series of privacy injunctions, so called 'super injunctions', gained widespread attention. The press was barred from publishing details about various prominent individuals. One case involving journalist and broadcaster Andrew Marr was dropped; another involving footballer Ryan Giggs became untenable, although many such injunctions remain in force.
- In July 2011, highlights from The Daily Show, an American TV program, were not shown on Channel 4's More4 channel because showing coverage of the House of Commons in a comedic or satirical context in Britain is prohibited by parliamentary rules. American viewers were able to see the material.
- In January 2012, British communications regulator Ofcom revoked Press TV's licence to broadcast in the UK; it remains available via the internet. Ofcom found that the News channel's editorial control was based in Tehran, which breaches the Communications Act 2003. This had come to their attention while investigating a Press TV interview with journalist Maziar Bahari, given under duress, in which he 'confessed' that western journalists working in Iran were spies. A connection has been made by opponents of the decision with Wikileaks cables suggesting the US and UK governments wanted to end Press TV's broadcasting licence in response to the Iranian government's jamming of the BBC Persian Service and the Voice of America.
- In August 2012, following publication of naked photographs of Prince Harry, lawyers for his father, Prince Charles, issued threats of legal action. The photographs were not used by British newspapers or television stations after St James’s Palace warned that the Royal Family regarded the pictures as a gross invasion of the prince’s privacy.
- In September 2012 Britain’s royal household began legal proceedings against a French magazine, Closer, that published paparazzi photographs of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William. And on 18 September a French court ordered the magazine to hand over all digital copies of the topless photos within 24 hours and blocked further publication of what it called a "brutal display" of the couple's private moments. The case is the first of two legal actions, St. James's Palace said that family lawyers would also be filing a criminal complaint.
- Between July and August 2013, The Guardian newspaper was subject to prior restraint as well as property destruction by members of GCHQ following its publication of documents relating to PRISM, the NSA and Edward Snowden.
George Orwell wrote several articles on censorship including an item titled The Freedom of the Press in 1943. It appears that this was a preface for his book Animal Farm, but it is unclear if it had been deliberately suppressed or if Orwell himself chose not to publish it.
Any fair-minded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. – George Orwell
Orwell went on to suggest that because both the UK and the Soviet Union were members of the Allied powers at the time, this self-censorship was preventing valid criticism of the Communist regime. Orwell worked for the Ministry of Information during the war and used it as his inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
- Sub judice
- Super-injunctions in English law
- Child pornography laws in the United Kingdom
- Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England
- British Board of Film Classification
- Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship
- Freedom of the Press
- Index on Censorship
- International Freedom of Expression Exchange
- mediawatch-uk (formerly the National Viewers and Listeners' Association)
- Taking Liberties (film)
- Libel tourism
- Master of the Revels
- Thomas Bowdler whose name is now used used as the verb "bowdlerise" or "bowdlerize"
- Anne Dodd, imprisoned in 1728 for selling anti-ministry pamphlets
- Mary Whitehouse, a Christian morality campaigner (founder of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association) known for her opposition to social liberalism
- Mass surveillance
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- Klug 1996, pp. 175–179
- Public Order Act 1986
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- Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988
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- Possession of Inspire has been successfully prosecuted under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000. "Online extremist sentenced to 12 years for soliciting murder of MPs" (Press release). West Midlands Police. 29 July 2011. "In addition, Ahmad admitted three counts of collecting information likely to be of use to a terrorist, including the al-Qaeda publication Inspire. This is the first successful prosecution for possessing the online jihadist magazine."
- Treason Felony Act 1848
- Klug 1996, p. 177
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- Dyer, Clare (27 June 2003). "Guardian vindicated in treason case". The Guardian. "Advocating the abolition of the monarchy in print is lawful and no one can be prosecuted for it, despite a 19th-century act still on the statute book that bans it…"
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