The Little Red Schoolbook

No. 29 of #50cases.

Sex, education and drugs – all part of growing up? Søren Hansen and Jesper Jensen certainly thought so when they wrote ‘The Little Red Schoolbook’, to advise children on these aspects of life.  The book was published in 1969 and, as you might expect, was very controversial. It encouraged children to have sex, watch pornography and question authority. Richard Handyside, a book publisher, bought the British publishing rights in 1970. The police raided his premises and seized all the copies of the books he had ordered. Handyside was prosecuted and fined for possessing the books – they were judged to be ‘obscene’ under the law. He was allowed to sell a heavily censored version.

So, could free speech be restricted in order to protect public morals? Handyside did not think so, and took his complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. He argued that his prosecution and conviction for possessing the books violated his right to freedom of expression.The court ruled that Handyside’s right to freedom of expression was not violated. Because there was no ‘uniform European conception of morals’, the UK courts were best placed to judge whether the book would corrupt the morals of impressionable children in Britain. Since the book was aimed at them and encouraged them to do potentially harmful activities, its censorship was justified.

This was a milestone case. Although Mr Handyside lost, the court famously said that freedom of expression applies not just to ideas that people like, but also to ideas which offend, shock or disturb. The judgment also showed that European states had significant leeway in restricting human rights. Still, moral values are not always set in stone. In 2014, 45 years later, the uncensored version of The Little Red Schoolbook was finally published in the UK.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

Media Coverage of this story