Libraries’ decision to hide children’s books with LGBT content challenged in Hong Kong court

Activist applies for judicial review of what he says was an unconstitutional move, as anti-gay-rights groups go even further and call for the books to be only available on request at annual book fair

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 5:02pm

A gay social activist has asked the courts to review the Hong Kong Public Libraries’ decision to hide 10 children’s books featuring same-sex parents and other LGBT themes from public view.

Lee Tak-hung’s judicial review application sought court orders quashing what he described as illegal and unconstitutional decisions.

And it came as anti-gay activists doubled down on their efforts, calling on organisers of the city’s annual book fair to similarly hide the books away.

A week earlier, an anti-gay-rights group revealed it had successfully lobbied library bosses to restrict the circulation of 10 titles, including seven with neutral content that do not promote homosexuality or same-sex marriage. The officials’ move sparked outrage among the LGBT community.

In the first judicial review application of its kind, filed at the High Court on Monday, Lee argued that the library chiefs’ decision ran contrary to the public’s right to freedom of expression and freedom to engage in cultural activities, as provided under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. He said it constituted unjustified discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lee, a regular library user, also argued there was no rational connection between the restriction and any legitimate aim it seeks to achieve, and said the decisions took into account considerations irrelevant to libraries’ established policies.

“It is important to state at the outset the extraordinary nature of the decisions,” his writ read. “Given the importance of public libraries in society, the legality of the decisions raises an important point of principle as to whether [Hong Kong Public Libraries] could lawfully exercise its powers to censor library materials on such bases.”

LGBT-themed children’s books taken off library shelves in Hong Kong

Among the titles which have been moved to closed-stack sections and are now only available on request is the critically acclaimed And Tango Makes Three, a story about two male penguins falling in love and building a family together with the help of a zookeeper.

Decision makers had explained that their aim was to “ensure that children will receive proper guidance while reading the books”.

But Lee, who said he first learned about homosexuality by reading books at the city’s public libraries, noted that there did not appear to be any measures requiring or encouraging parents to accompany their child while reading these materials.

“Such absence of accompanying measures indeed reflects … the closed stacks were never intended to be a mechanism to ensure parental guidance,” the writ continued. “All that the decisions would result in is that children will not know that the 10 books exist.”

There is no censorship in publishing in Hong Kong. The book fair also does not censor [any books] in advance
Benjamin Chau, Trade Development Council

Lee further argued that the government’s purported aim of protecting young people’s sensibilities was contradicted in the case because “the decisions would be protecting the sensibilities of straight young people at the expense of that of gay or transgender people”.

The proposed respondents named are the secretary for home affairs, the director of leisure and cultural services and the Hong Kong Public Libraries’ collection development meeting, which made the decision.

No hearing date has yet been scheduled.

The group that lobbied for the titles’ removal went even further on Friday, calling for them to be hidden from view at the upcoming Hong Kong Book Fair. That came after the European Union’s office in Hong Kong and Macau, one of the exhibitors at the fair, posted photos of the affected books on Facebook, writing that “this year’s theme is love and at the EU we love all kinds of books”.

Roger Wong Wai-ming, convenor of the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group, urged the Trade Development Council, which organises the annual fair, to hide the LGBT books, saying they should be available only upon request.

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The father of pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung said children could learn about “wrong ideology” from them.

“It will violate the rights of parents if the children learn about these values without their parents noticing it. [The council] should respect parents’ right to pick what they want to teach their children in moral education,” he said.

The council said it would not censor any books, stressing that the fair is a free and open platform.

“There is no censorship in publishing in Hong Kong. The book fair also does not censor [any books] in advance,” its deputy executive director Benjamin Chau Kai-leung said.

Chau said the council would ask the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration to look at the books once they receive any complaints. He said if the officers find the books indecent or obscene, the council would ask the exhibitors to remove them.

To be held this year between July 18 and 24 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, the fair is poised to host about 680 exhibitors, from 37 countries and regions.