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The classification criteria

This page provides an overview of the legal criteria that must be applied by the Classification Office when classifying a publication - such as a film, game, book or computer file. Once they are examined under those criteria, publications can be classified as unrestricted, restricted (eg R16 or R18), or objectionable (banned).

Judge's gavel

Criteria are set out in law

The criteria are set out in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (The Classification Act). Changes to the criteria would require Parliament to amend the Classification Act. The law was last amended in 2005.

You can view the Classification Act in full on the Government's legislation website.

The criteria are outlined in section 3, section 3A, and section 3B. For more information about the Classification Act, see New Zealand's classification law: The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993.

Please note that the Act does not regulate political speech, the expression of opinions, or 'hate speech'. The Classification Office made a Submission to the 2004 Inquiry into Hate Speech.

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The five main criteria

A summary of section 3(1) of the Classification Act:

A publication can be restricted or banned if it "describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with" matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence, and if its unrestricted availability would be harmful to society.

Full text of section 3(1) in the legislation

Close up image of the word 'objectionable' in the legislation
The Classification Act defines the 'meaning of objectionable' in section 3

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Criteria that always lead to a ban

A summary of section 3(2) of the Classification Act:

A publication is objectionable (banned) if it promotes or supports, or tends to promote or support, the following activities:

  • The sexual exploitation of children
  • Sexual violence or coercion
  • Torture or extreme violence
  • Bestiality
  • Sexual conduct involving the body of a dead person
  • The use of urine or excrement in association with degrading or sexual conduct

The meaning of the words 'promote' and 'support'

This means that a publication must advance, encourage, uphold or strengthen, rather than just show, describe or deal with, one of the matters listed above for it to be banned under this section of the criteria.

Full text of section 3(2) in the legislation

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Criteria given special consideration

Certain criteria must be given special consideration when assessing whether a publication should be restricted or banned.

A summary of section 3(3) of the Classification Act:

The Classification Office must give 'particular weight' to the extent, degree, and manner in which the publication deals with the following:

  • Torture, serious physical harm and acts of significant cruelty
  • Sexual violence, coercion, or conduct in which sexual satisfaction is derived from inflicting or suffering cruelty or pain
  • Conduct (sexual or otherwise) which is degrading, demeaning or dehumanising
  • Sexual conduct involving children or young people, or which exploits the nudity of children or young people
  • The promotion or encouragement of criminal acts or acts of terrorism
  • Representations of people who belong to a particular group, culture or community as inherently inferior due to a characteristic which is a prohibited grounds for discrimination under section 21(1) of the Human Rights Act 1993

The extent, degree and manner in which a publication deals with the above matters may lead to the publication being banned, even if the publication does not tend to promote or support the activities listed in the previous section (see Criteria that always lead to a ban above).

Full text of section 3(3) in the legislation

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Highly offensive language

A publication can be restricted, but not banned, if it contains highly offensive language.

A summary of section 3A of the Classification Act:

Language that is 'highly offensive to the public in general' can lead to an age-restriction being placed on a publication, if it is likely to cause serious harm to young people.

Full text of section 3A in the legislation

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Self-harm and other criteria

A publication can be restricted, but not banned, if it contains self-harm, degrading or demeaning conduct, or conduct that would be dangerous if imitated.

A summary of section 3B of the Classification Act:

A publication may be age-restricted if it 'describes, depicts, expresses, or otherwise deals with' the following:

  • Self-harm, including suicide or harmful body modification
  • Conduct that, if imitated, would pose a risk of serious harm to a child or young person themselves, or to other people
  • Physical conduct which is degrading, demeaning or dehumanising

The material listed above can be age-restricted if it is likely to have a negative effect on young people, such as:

  • Causing them to be greatly disturbed or shocked
  • Increasing the risk of them killing or harming themselves, or others
  • Encouraging them to treat or regard themselves, or others, as degraded, demeaned or dehumanised

Full text of section 3B in the legislation

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The dominant effect

The Classification Office must also consider the dominant effect of the publication on its intended audience, the intended use of the publication, and other matters.

A summary of section 3(4) of the Classification Act:

When deciding whether or not to restrict or ban a publication, the Classification Office must take the following matters into account:

  • The intended purpose, likely audience, and dominant effect of the publication as a whole
  • How the medium or format of the publication is likely to affect an audience (for example, the effect of viewing a film in a cinema would be different to the effect from reading a book)
  • Whether the publication has any merit, value or importance (for example, a publication may have artistic merit, cultural importance or educational value)

Full text of section 3(4) in the legislation

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