Trials in the Land of OZ

The vice squads and obscenity courts were working overtime in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I recall them well, being one of the rebels who was hauled off to jail and court for publishing an underground newspaper called The New York Review of Sex and Politics. As much of a legal ordeal as I endured (and won), little could compare with the tribulations in 1971 of what Tony Palmer called “the longest obscenity trial in history.” It was the ordeal that Richard Neville and his comrade editors at OZ entered in the summer of 1971, when English law and the mass press conspired to make a lesson of the underground press upstarts who had “corrupted the morals of young children.” Palmer wrote a lengthy account of the case using court transcripts to show the bias brought to bear.

OZ was one of several ‘underground’ publications targeted by the Obscene Publications Squad, and their offices had already been raided on several occasions, but the conjunction of school children and what some viewed as obscene material set the scene for the OZ obscenity trial of 1971. The judicial instruction was clearly aimed at securing a conviction, and the judge hearing the London case, Justice Michael Argyle, exhibited clear signs of bias against the defendants.

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The case meant to send a message about dissent and dissenters, about the control of ideas and suppressing the messages of social resistance. It attacked OZ in issue No. 28: “[that the defendants] conspiring with certain other young persons to produce a magazine containing obscene, lewd, indecent and sexually perverted articles, cartoons and drawings with intent to debauch and corrupt the morals of children and other young persons and to arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted ideas.”

The charges were trumped and the allegations were false. Palmer’s book, illustrated with images by the great Feliks Topolski, tells a story of English justice ignored.

 

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The trial was, at the time, the first time that an obscenity charge was combined with the charge of conspiring to corrupt public morals. Friendly witnesses included artist Feliks Topolski, comedian Marty Feldman, artist and drugs activist Caroline Coon, DJ John Peel, musician and writer George Melly, legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin and academic Edward de Bono. It was a time and event that should never be forgotten.

 

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