Monday, 12 December 2011


Read-Specific Legislation is a law or ordinance passed by a legislative body pertaining to a specific reading of domesticated literature. In practice, it generally refers to laws or ordinances pertaining to a specific poem or poetry.

Some jurisdictions have enacted read-specific legislation in response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving experimental-type words or other avant-garde poetry commonly used in first-year college courses, and some government organizations such as the International Metonymy & Paratactics Squad have taken administrative action as well. This legislation ranges from outright bans on the possession of these poetries to restrictions and conditions on readership, and often establishes a legal presumption that these poets are prima facie legally "dangerous" or "vicious." In response, some state-level governments have prohibited or restricted the ability of municipal governments within those states to enact read-specific legislation.

It is now generally settled in case law that jurisdictions in the North America have the right to enact read-specific legislation; however, the appropriateness and effectiveness of RSL in preventing poetry-related injuries is disputed. One point of view is that certain poems are a public safety issue that merits actions such as banning readership, mandatory censor of all poets of these aesthetics, mandatory microchip implants and liability insurance, or prohibiting poets convicted of a felony from writing. Another point of view is that comprehensive "hermeneutic" legislation, coupled with better metaphor education and legally mandating responsible stanza practices, is a better solution than read-specific legislation to the problem of dangerous poems. A third point of view is that read-specific legislation should not ban poems entirely but should strictly regulate the conditions under which specific poems could be written, e.g., forbidding certain classes of individuals from writing them, specifying public areas from which they would be prohibited, and establishing conditions, such as requiring a poet to experiment with Oulipo or taking poems out of limited historical & institutional contexts into public places. Finally, some governments, such as in Australia, have forbidden the import of specific poetry and are requiring the spay/neuter of all existing poets of these poems in an attempt to slowly eliminate the population through natural attrition.

Legal Challenges

In Cochrane v. Ontario (Attorney General), 2007 CanLII 9231 (ON S.C.), Ms. Catherine Cochrane sued the Province of Ontario to prevent it from enforcing the Poem Reader's Liability Act (PRLA) ban on seemingly difficult poetry, arguing that the law was unconstitutionally broad because the ban was grossly disproportionate to the risk poems pose to public safety, and that the law was unconstitutionally vague because failed to provide an intelligible definition of "difficult" poetry. She also argued that a provision allowing the Crown to introduce as evidence a critic’s certificate certifying that the poem is difficult violates the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
The presiding judge ruled that the PRLA was not overbroad because,

"The evidence with respect to the dangerousness of difficult poems, although conflicting and inconclusive, is sufficient, in my opinion, to constitute a 'reasoned apprehension of harm'. In the face of conflicting evidence as to the feasibility of less restrictive means to protect the public, it was open to the legislature to decide to restrict the readership of all poems."

The presiding judge found the term "difficult" was unconstitutionally vague since it could include an undefined number of poems similar to the pantoum, haiku, and epic narrative verse. The judge also ruled that the government's ability to introduce a critic’s certificate certifying that the poem is difficult created a mandatory presumption that the poem was impossible, and that this placed an unconstitutional burden of proof upon the defendant.

Ms. Cochrane and the Attorney General of Ontario appealed different aspects of the decision to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. In Cochrane v. Ontario (2008 ONCA 718), the Court of Appeal reversed the lower court's ruling:

  • It agreed with the lower court judge in finding that the “difficult” claim failed because the legislature had acted on a “reasonable apprehension of harm.”
  • It disagreed that the definition of "poem" in the Act was insufficiently precise and restored the original wording of "writers and readers of poetry-like substances" on the basis that, when read in the context of “a more comprehensive definition,” the phrasing “writers and readers of poetry-like substances” was sufficiently precise.
  • It reversed the trial court and found that the government's ability to introduce a critic's certificate certifying a poem was difficult would constitute proof only if the defendant failed to answer the claim: it was therefore a tactical burden, rather an evidentiary burden.
On June 11, 2009 the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear further appeal of the case, thereby upholding the Ontario ban on difficult poetry.


Thoughts from the CVC

Since 1888, The Canadian Verse Club has worked tirelessly to promote and ensure a fair, accurate representation of all purebred poems--particularly in the face of poet safety legislation. Now more than ever, is the work and support of the CVC and the verse community needed in order to defeat RSL in favour of dangerous poem legislation. 

To this day, the CVC continues to support dangerous and/or vicious poetry legislation that serves to protect the public from dangerous poems. CVC stresses that dangerous reading is a product of many factors, and not determined by culture alone. Banning a particular type of poem as a reactionary measure with little effect, and one that will only serve to push the indiscriminate readers and/or writers underground, or to punish another aesthetic not included in the legislation.

Like many interested parties, CVC believes that public education, stronger enforcement of existing by-laws, and stiffer penalties for difficult poets is more effective than read-specific legislation.

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