little red schoolbook

"Nearly all the changes in which you're allowed to participate are in things which aren't very important. The real and difficult changes are those which give more and more people power to decide more and more things for themselves"

- from The Little Red School Book by Soren Hansen and Jesper Jenson.
Translated from Danish by Berit Thornberry. First published in London by Stage 1, 1971


Originally published in Denmark, and first published in English in the UK in 1971, The Little Red School Book aroused great controversy in several countries, notably the UK and Australia. Although freely available in the USA and many other nations, it was also banned in France and Italy and, as the result of a celebrated obscenity trial, it was only permitted to be published in the UK in a censored form. Although not banned outright in Australia, it was the subject of heated discussion in the community at large and the government, with conservatives vigorously calling for it to be banned.

The Little Red Schoolbook was written by two Danish schoolteachers, Soren Hansen and Jesper Jenson. Its title was taken from the famous Chinese publication commonly known as “The Little Red Book” (the actual title was Selected Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) which was required reading for good Maoists everywhere in the Sixties. Loosely modelled on Mao's aphoristic advice for the budding revolutionary, The Little Red School Book has been described as “essentially a manual for kids on how to challenge the authority of the school system”. It devoted twenty of its two hundred pages to sex and thirty to drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. The rest dealt with examinations, teachers' duties, discipline, intelligence and different schools.

Although it generally encouraged students to work within the system to achieve improvements and reform, the British government considered it both obscene and subversive and some Australian federal cabinet ministers felt likewise. According to the 1972 federal cabinet papers (released on 1 January 2003) the McMahon cabinet discussed the book on at least four occasions, with several ministers calling for it to be banned. The book’s mildly anti-authoritarian “student power” political stance was a source of concern, and as recently as 1995 one 'Libertarian' commentator was still criticising it for promoting “…the irreverence and discourtesy cultivated today (by the New Left, e.g. in The Little Red Schoolbook, widely influential on teachers trained in the 1970s”.

But it was the sexual content which really made the book a hot potato for conservatives in Australia and the UK. Most school sex and drug education texts of the period were highly moralistic in tone, ultra-conservative in outlook and intolerant of alternative sexual and lifestyle orientations. For example, Julia Dankus’ A Textbook of Sex Education (1967) bluntly described homosexuality as a “psychological disturbance”. Others reckless avoided the facts, with one author even suggesting to young women that "your eggs won’t get fertilised until you are quite grown up and have a husband." By contrast, The Little Red Schoolbook gave frank, accurate and sensible advice about drugs and sex.

The very frankness of the LRSB made it a target for those who were determined to resist what they saw as the rising tide of permissiveness. On 31 March and 1 April 1971, and apparently at the prompting of British 'morals' campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the London offices of the British publisher, Stage 1, were raided by Scotland Yard’s Obscene Publications Squad (OPS). The print matrix and hundreds of copies of the Schoolbook were seized and the proprietor of Stage 1, Richard Handyside, was subsequently charged with "having in his possession obscene books and seeking to publish them for gain".

The LRSB had in fact been a good seller for Stage 1 -- they had sold out of the first edition of 20,000, and a second edition of 50,000 was in preparation -- so, as writer John Sutherland noted, a police raid, if supported by the DPP, would freeze all stock and "could have meant death for a small operation like Stage 1". The raid triggered panic in the London publishing world and it was reported that 20 'leading London publishers' had banded together to form a protection group and there was even talk that they would reprint the LRSB with their own imprints attached, but several leading houses including Faber & Faber quickly dissociated themslves from the group and before long the publishing world had left Handyside to fend for himself.

This was not simply a criminal matter. Many now consider the Handyside case to have been part of a wide-ranging covert campaign aimed at suppressing domestic dsocial and political issent in Britain. The first stage of this anti-Underground campaign, the police action, was influenced by purely venal motives. The Schoolbook raid was later proved to have been part of a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy involving members of Obscene Publications Squad, who targeted high-profile Underground publications like Oz, International Times (IT) and Frenz, in order to divert attention from the endemic corruption in the Squad. A later inquiry revealed that many senior members of the Metropolitan Police, including the head of the OPS, Detective Chief Inspector George Fenwick, were receiving regular and substantial payoffs from Soho pornographers in return for protection, and Fenwick was subsequently jailed for ten years as the “chief architect” of the corruption ring.

The second stage of the campaign was even more sinister and correspondingly more obscure – the subtle and cynical manipulation of the British justice system by conservative elements in the government and the judiciary. Largely because of their reactionary political and religious convictions, these people were anxious to suppress dissent in the media and to counter the growing public pressure for the liberalization of laws governing matters such as sexuality and drug use. To achieve this they exploited Britain's antiquated obscenity laws to launch a series of prosecutions against publications they considered undesirable. This campaign culminated in the infamous Oz obscenity case, which took place at almost the same time. Both actions were defended by one of the few London silks willing to take on such contentious cases -- the famous British barrister, playwright and author John Mortimer.

On 1 July 1971 Handyside was found guilty and fined £50, and the material seized in the raid were ordered to be forfeited to the Crown. Fortunately for Handyside, the magistrate in this case was rather more lenient in his sentencing than the judge in the Oz trial, who famously gave the three editors to hefty prison sentences with hard labour (although their convictions were subsequently quashed on appeal). Nevertheless, the magistrate was called "an obscene old man" by a 'hippy' in the public gallery, and Mrs Whitehouse was jeered as she left the court, although she said she was releived by the verdict. The British National Council for Civil Liberties was lles pleased, calling the case "an absolutely sickening decision ... one of the gravest steps against free expression that we have seen in this country for a long time"

When the Handyside appeal was heard at the Inner London Quarter Sessions on 29 October 1971, the court found, remarkably, that much of the information in the book was “sensible and sane”, noting in particular that the book’s “treatment of homosexuality was a factual, very compassionate, understanding and valuable statement” and that the book contained “a great deal of advice which should not be denied to young people”. But, the judgement concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, these matters could not outweigh what the court was convinced was a tendency to deprave and corrupt. It upheld the conviction and the forfeiture order and the material seized in the April raids was destroyed.

Handyside subsequently appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in 1976. The Handyside Case was one of the first cases in which the ECHR set out clear principles for the operation of freedom of expression and freedom of the press under the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite handing down a judgement which extended the definition of free expression to information and ideas that "offend, shock or disturb", the ECHR nevertheless ruled in favour of the British government, to which it granted a “margin of appreciation” to determine the measures needed to protect public morals, and found that the government's action in banning The Little Red Schoolbook and charging Handyside with obscenity was “not out of proportion in a democratic society”. The spirit of the ruling -- which was clearly a rubber stamp for British censorship -- is less surprising when considered in the context of the ongoing controversy surrounding Britain's entry into the European Community and the strong opposition to the move on the conservative side of British politics.

In Australia, the McMahon government took a slightly more liberal view, although some cabinet members were clearly anxious to see the book suppressed. Despite strenuous opposition from some colleagues, Liberal Minister for Customs Senator Don Chipp oversaw a considerable relaxation of literary censorship during his term in office. He told cabinet in April 1972 that he would not ban the importation of The Little Red Schoolbook, and that such a ban would be futile anyway because the book would be printed in Australia and therefore would not be subject to the Customs Act. However, cabinet asked Malcolm Fraser (then the Minister for Education and Science) to exercise his influence and authority to prevent its distribution to schools, in an attempt to prevent it from reaching its intended audience.

This school 'ban' became a cause celebre with opponents of literary censorship, so groups and individuals like Wendy Bacon and others associated with the UNSW student paper Tharunka, and the UWA Guild (the University of Western Australia student union), decided to simultaneously subvert the ban and protest against it by printing a broadsheet, containing extracts from the book, which was handed out to students around the country by volunteers, who circumvented the ban by standing just outside school grounds.

Senator Jack Kane, federal secretary of the conservative Democratic Labor Party (whose preferences kept the Coalition in power) predictably criticised Chipp, claiming he had “played a major role in eroding the moral basis on which Australian society depended”. Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony even claimed that the book was “a handbook for juvenile revolution and anarchy” and that “its subversive nature endangered society”. Predictably, the book achieved neither outcome.

In July 1972 Federal Cabinet decided to take "a stronger line against objectionable and indecent publications" and to "show leadership to the states". The concept of an “R” certificate for books was considered but there were doubts that such a scheme would work. It was agreed that a committee would be appointed to decide on "acceptable community standards" and to examine the need for power to prohibit importation of ‘objectionable’ publications. These plans were never realised, however -- just five months later, the Liberals' 23-year reign was brought to an abrupt end, replaced by the reformist Labor administration of Gough Whitlam.

Today The Little Red Schoolbook is a distant memory for most baby-boomers and and there would be few Australians under the age of 40 who have heard of it. It is now the subject of an Australian documentary, The Book That Changed the World, which screened on Australia's SBS network in November 2007. The LRSB's Danish authors were interviewed for the film, along with Don Chipp, Wendy Bacon and others. Hanson and Jenson revealed that they were subjected to intense pressure in Denmark -- Hansen lost his teaching job and the two were roundly criticised for being subversive and for "trying to turn children into insurgents". Filmmaker Con Anemogiannis says although millions of copies were released around the world, a large proportion was pirated and the pair earned little from the venture. Ironically, the LRSB, which originally sold for just AU$1.75, has now become something of a collector's item, with copies currently changing hands for between $30 and $50 on eBAy.

References / Links

Sally Burnheim
Freedom of Expression on Trial: Caselaw under European Convention on human rights

Mike Davis
”Sex, lies and stereotypes”
Chartist, May/June 2000

Tony Stephens
”Release of 'subversive' book marks new moral chapter”
Sydney Morning Herald , January 1 2003

John Sutherland
Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain 1960-1982 (Roman & Littlefield, 1983)

Alan Travis
Oz trial lifted lid on porn squad bribery“
The Guardian,Saturday November 13, 1999

L. Wildhaber
The place of the European Court of Human Rights in the European Constitutional landscape

The Woodcraft Folk

Database of the Case Law of the European Convention on Human Rights
”In the Handyside Case”