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Book case study - Into the River

Four times classified

UPDATED 14/10/15: Into the River has been classified as Unrestricted and the Interim Restriction Order imposed by the President of the Board of Review is no longer in force.

This book was classified twice by the Classification Office and twice by the Board of Review.

  • 11/09/2013: Classified Unrestricted M by the Classification Office
  • 23/12/2013: Classified R14 by the Board of Review
  • 14/08/2015: Classified Unrestricted by the Classification Office
  • 14/10/2015: Classified Unrestricted by the Board of Review

In July 2013, the Department of Internal Affairs submitted Into the River to the Classification Office as a result of complaints from members of the public.

In September 2013 the Classification Office assigned the book a classification of M (unrestricted) with the descriptive note 'contains sex scenes, offensive language and drug use'.

The organisation Family First disagreed with the classification and applied to the Film and Literature Board of Review, seeking a restricted classification for the book. In December 2013 the Board of Review classified the book R14, a unique classification that had never previously been assigned under the Classification Act.

In the following year, there was growing dissatisfaction with the Board’s decision, particularly amongst teachers and librarians, leading to a request by Auckland Libraries to have the Board's decision reconsidered by the Classification Office. The Chief Censor allowed the submission to go ahead, and in August 2015 the classification of Into the River was changed again: it is now classified as 'Unrestricted'. This was the first time the Classification Office had ever reconsidered a decision of the Board.

The plot

Into the River is a New Zealand Young Adult book written by Ted Dawe.

The novel is centred on Te Arepa Santos, a boy from a fictional village on the East Coast of the North Island in New Zealand. He wins a scholarship to a boys' boarding school in Auckland, and the transition is difficult. He forges friendships, finds enemies, and discovers that his Māori identity is discounted and a disadvantage. He endures the bullying that comes from this, and that comes from being the new kid at school, and sees what happens when that bullying goes too far. There are confusing encounters with sex and a growing understanding of intimacy, the use of drugs, peer pressure, racism, grief and death.

Into the River won the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award at the 2013 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards.

Carole Beu from The Women's Bookshop in Ponsonby, Auckland reviews Into the River with Lindsey Dawson on Face TV:

Classification requirements for books

Books don't have the same classification requirements as films.

Under New Zealand's Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, books don't have to be classified before they are supplied to the public (in the way that films are). Instead, books are usually classified as a result of a submission from a member of the public, or enforcement action by Police, Customs, or the Department of Internal Affairs. This means that the Classification Office usually only classifies a few books each year.

More about the classification of books

Complaints about the book

Some members of the public were concerned that the book's content was unsuitable for young people to read, particularly the use of offensive language and sexual material. As a result of complaints, the Department of Internal Affairs submitted the book to the Classification Office.

Original Classification Office decision

After reading Into the River, and considering the classification criteria, the Classification Office decided to classify the book M (unrestricted and suitable for mature audiences 16 years and over) with the descriptive note 'Contains sex scenes, offensive language and drug use'. The written classification decision explains why:

...Into The River's unrestricted availability is unlikely to injure the public good...The content to do with matters of sex and crime does not automatically require restriction. A reader with the maturity to read a text-dense novel is likely to have the maturity to deal with the contents... Concerns about children or young persons are adequately addressed by a classification indicating the book's suitability for mature audiences...

Office of Film and Literature Classification, 2013

Original Classification Office decision for the novel Into the River - 2013 (PDF, 232KB)

The first appeal

An application was made to appeal the Classification Office decision.

If a member of the public is unhappy with a Classification Office decision, they can make an application to the Film and Literature Board of Review for a new decision.

In the case of Into the River, the applicant to the Board of Review felt that the book should have a restricted classification due to offensive language and sexual content.

The Board of Review decision

The Board of Review carried out its own examination and classification of the book.

Rather than 'reviewing' the Classification Office decision, the Board of Review is required to go through the process of examining the book against the classification criteria and determining a new classification - that classification can be lower, higher, or the same as the Classification Office decision.

The Board assigned a unique classification

In its decision, the Board noted that although the book deals with sex, crime, cruelty and violence, it does not do so in a way that requires a restriction.

[The book] is likely to educate and inform young adults about the potentially negative consequences that can follow from involvement in casual sex, underage drinking, drug taking, crime, violence and bullying...the book serves a useful social purpose in raising these issues for thought and debate and creating a context which may help young adults think more deeply about choices they may be called upon to make and both the immediate and long term consequences of those choices.

Film and Literature Board of Review, 2013

However, the Board also felt that the degrading and demeaning conduct depicted in scenes of bullying would be likely to shock or disturb children under the age of 14, and so the Board classified the book R14: 'parental advisory explicit content'.

An R14 classification had never previously been assigned under the Classification Act. The decision was also unusual in that the Board did not require an official label to be displayed on the book, even though it was now legally age-restricted.

Film and Literature Board of Review's majority decision classifying Into the River as R14 (PDF, 419KB)

There was disagreement within the Board of Review about what the classification should be: the President of the Board published a dissenting opinion supporting an R18 classification (the dissenting opinion outlines one member's views about the book but has no effect on the classification).

Dissenting opinion of the President of the Film and Literature Board of Review classifying Into the River as R18 (PDF, 36KB)

The reconsideration

Into the River was submitted to the Classification Office in order to reconsider the Board of Review's R14 classification.

The Classification Office had never before reconsidered a decision by the Film and Literature Board of Review, however the Classification Act does allow for this to happen if three years have passed since the Board made its decision, or if special circumstances are identified that justify a reconsideration before the three year period is up.

Find out more about how classification decisions can be appealed

A submission was made by Auckland Libraries in March 2015. The submission identified a number of factors which, taken together, were considered to be 'special circumstances' justifying a reconsideration. These included:

  • The widely held view that the classification should be changed, a view shared by libraries across New Zealand (including public libraries from 64 local authorities), the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA), and the Association of Public Library Managers;
  • The restriction had made access difficult for many people over the age of 14 and had a negative impact on the value of the book as a teaching resource and an aid to countering issues around bullying in New Zealand;
  • Libraries had demonstrated a willingness and ability to manage access to the book in ways that would mitigate any potential harm from the age restriction being removed.

During the classification process, the Classification Office received written submissions about the classification of the book from LIANZA, Auckland Council, NZ Book Council, Storylines Children's Literature Trust, the NZ Association for Teaching English, and Family First.

The Classification Office removed the age restriction from the book

The Classification Office decided that restricting the book was not justified and would remove a quality resource from young people that allowed them to explore issues such as racism, peer pressure and bullying. The Classification Office found that the R14 age restriction had led to many cases of access and exposure to the book being restricted from people of all ages, including the target audience of teenage boys and young men. The Classification Office stated that any potential harm that could arise from the unrestricted availability of Into the River could be mitigated by librarians, parents and teachers.

It was also unclear from the Board’s decision whether the right to freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights Act was considered and given sufficient weight.

...a restriction would be inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression and is not reasonable or demonstrably justifiable. The Classification Office, upon reconsideration...classifies the publication unrestricted. This classification reflects the circumstances put to the Classification Office during consultation. In this instance, the suitability of the publication for young persons can best be determined by libraries, schools and parents.

Office of Film and Literature Classification, 2015

Classification Office decision for the novel Into the River - 2015 reconsideration (PDF, 154KB)

The second appeal and the Interim Restriction Order

Following the reconsideration, Family First again appealed the Classification Office decision to the Board of Review.

The Board of Review accepted an application by Family First to review the classification of Into the River following the decision by the Classification Office to remove the R14 restriction from the book.

Family First also applied to the President of the Board to have an Interim Restriction Order imposed on the book until the Board decided on a classification. The application was granted. The Interim Restriction Order made it illegal to supply the book to anyone or to display the book in or within view of a public place. This was the first time that an Interim Restriction Order had ever been imposed on a book. Many people were upset that the book had effectively been temporarily banned, and this led to worldwide media attention.

The Board of Review examined the book again using the classification criteria in the Classification Act. This time the majority decision was to classify the book as Unrestricted. This means that the book can now be supplied to anyone of any age (once the decision was registered the Interim Restriction Order was no longer in force).

Film and Literature Board of Review's 2015 majority decision classifying Into the River as Unrestricted (PDF, 2,461KB)

As with the previous Board decision, the President of the Board published a dissenting opinion supporting an R18 classification (the dissenting opinion has no effect on the classification).

2015 Dissenting opinion of the President of the Film and Literature Board of Review classifying Into the River as R18 (PDF, 143KB)

Case studies - books, music and other stuff

Into the River book cover

...gritty, provocative, at times shocking, but always real and true. The awards' chief judge Bernard Beckett described a character 'caught between two worlds... the explicit content was presented as the danger of people being left adrift by society. And within that context, hard-hitting material is crucial; it is what makes the book authentic, real and important.'

Random House

Useful links

Ted Dawe
Author Ted Dawe
Book of the Year logo
Children's Book Awards - Book of the Year