The Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission is calling for the repeal of a lengthy list of legally banned publications – ranging from defunct communist periodicals to Madonna’s best-selling book of erotic photographs.

Hundreds of books are still banned in the Cayman Islands under the Prohibited Publications Order of the Penal Code, which came into effect in 1977 and was last reviewed in 1998.

The majority of the books focus on communism and trade unions, witchcraft and the occult, and erotica.

James Austin-Smith, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, said such censorship is irrational and futile and called for the law to be repealed.

In conflict with constitution

Under the Cayman Islands Constitution, he said, the banning of books could only be justified in limited, specific circumstances, such as in the interests of public safety.

In a statement to coincide with World Banned Books Week, he warned, “Disproportionate and irrational restrictions on allowing persons to participate fully in their religion or personal expression are unconstitutional and can open government up to liability.

“Instead of prohibiting reading materials, the commission would encourage government to focus on improving literacy, which the Ministry of Education has indicated is a concern, to encourage critical thinking and an engaged and well-informed society.”

Dustin Kurtz, manager of Books & Books in Camana Bay, said he had never tried to order any of the eclectic list of books, which includes such obscure titles as “The Spicy Detective” and “Leg Show” magazine.

But he said the concept of a banned books list backed by legal penalties is out of sync with the islands’ image as a modern democracy.

“There are books that I absolutely choose not to stock that I find wildly offensive for various reasons, but as a bookseller I would defend the right of people to read them. There’s a vast difference between a bookstore choosing not to sell certain books and a government banning people from importing them,” he said.

The Human Rights Commission noted in its statement that the right of freedom of expression is guaranteed under Cayman’s Bill of Rights and includes “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

It states: “The censorship of publications, in this case without any explanation or apparent justification, is quite contrary to those rights.

“Equally, in a world where materials more explicit in nature and articulating a vast range of political and religious views are readily available on the Internet, the banning of this small selection of materials is not only hard to comprehend but, ultimately, utterly futile.”

Many of the 130-plus titles banned in Cayman are political, including materials from the U.S., the former USSR, Canada, the U.K., North Korea and China. Some are religious in nature; for example, all publications of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a sect of Rastafarianism, are banned in Cayman.

Though the practical effect of the law is likely limited because of the fringe nature of the publications and the absence of any local authors on the list, the Human Rights Commission says it sets a “dangerous precedent for censorship of cultural, political and religious expression.”

The last week in September is recognized as World Banned Books Week by the American Libraries Association. The commission notes that books such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison were once banned in the U.S. and now widely appear on school reading lists worldwide.

Mr. Kurtz said it is some consolation that no real “books of value” are included on the Cayman list.

“There’s nothing on there that we would see any reason to try to order. It seems to be an artifact of specific moral cycles, such as Castro in the ‘70s, and then the sort of prurient banning of pornography.”