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A worthless book – but leave it alone

August 30, 2009 Leave a comment

      Update: Saskatchewan Minister Don Morgan has confirmed the province willl seek to recover any money due Colin Thatcher on the publication of his book, Final Appeal: Antomy of a Frame. The goverrnment intends to ask for voluntary payment but will ask the author and publisher why they believe the law does not apply to them.

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There’s a dust-up underway in Saskatchewan — with implications for publishers and writers across Canada — over convicted murderer Colin Thatcher’s book about his trials.

Thatcher, who grew up in an influential Saskatchewan family where his father once served as premier, has put out his version of his arrest and conviction for the murder of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson.

Final AppealFinal Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame is due in bookstores this week from the Toronto publisher ECW Press.

I haven’t read the book. A reviewer who has, John Gormley of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, writes here that he can’t put his copy down. He says “Thatcher weaves together a masterful tale.” But he doesn’t believe a word of it.

Thatcher argues he’s been framed. And the Saskatchewan government has passed a special law, the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act, to strip him of any profits from the book.

Ironically, Thatcher says he doesn’t care because according to the law, the profits would go to the children of his ex-wife.

The Saskatchewan law is objectionable for several reasons:

  1. It singles out a particular individual. That’s not the way to design legislation that is meant to affect the general welfare.
  2. It has far-reaching clauses, including one that would even recapture the earnings of books authored by criminals “recollecting or expressing thoughts or feelings” about a crime.
  3. It has a chilling effect on freedom of expression — just another form of censorship.

I’m concerned about the law not because of the impact it may have on Thatcher or his profits. I’m concerned for its effect on others, in the future, who may be in quite different situations than Thatcher.

Right now, I’m researching a historical example of a wrongful conviction where the presumed murderer was hanged. Someone else later confessed to the crime. I’ll be using the information in a magazine article and perhaps a book.

Of course, the law wouldn’t affect me. But how about someone who’s been convicted and wants to publish a book that argus their innocence — like Thatcher is doing?  

Considering the number of wrongful convictions that we’ve recorded in Canada, I feel uncomfortable about interfering with one’s right to argue their innocence — even someone as apparently guilty as Thatcher.

Sure, the law doesn’t ban the book outright, it just takes anyway any compensation the author might earn.

When it comes to someone putting down their ideas on paper, and publishing it for the world to judge, that’s exactly what should happen – let the world make its judgment.

Yes, this covers hate literature, too. Just as Thatcher apparently makes a weak case for his innocence, let other purveyors of extreme views be judged by their words. Distasteful words are best fought by reason, not repression.

Erna Paris, the Canadian author of several outstanding books on international affairs, makes the argument against censorship in general in this article in The Globe and Mail.

She deals specifically with the banning of To Kill a Mockingbird (what not, again?). But her approach is more historical.

“The book banners,” she writes, “have always been with us and I’m sorry to say they have no plans to leave.”

The best we can do, she adds, is shore up the courage of those in the front lines. “They don’t need to back down at the slightest hint of dissent.”

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