Monday, March 06, 2006

Reviewing sedition

The Australian Law Reform Commission will review Australia's controversial sedition law - not three months after it was passed. But rather than reviewing the necessity of the law, or its potential conflict with right of free speech, the review will instead focus on whether it will be effective in addressing the "problem" of "urging" the use of force or violence, and

the practical difficulties involved in proving a specific intention to urge violence or acts of terrorism.

The chief "practical difficulty" being that "urging" is legally undefined and potentially very broad, and that there is no connection to concrete action at all. It is enough to say "Australians should overthrow their government" (though arguably that particular instance would be covered by the "good faith" defence).

Like other common law jurisdictions, Australia already has the legal language it needs to combat those who seriously advocate (but do not commit) terrorism, in various laws criminalising the incitement of murder, terrorism, and other crimes. But this requires a link to a specific criminal act, and an element of real persuasion; you cannot "incite" unidentified individuals to do unidentified Bad Things at an unidentified time in the future. Neither can you "incite" crimes merely by saying that a government is evil and deserves to be overthrown, or that a group of people are unbelievers and should be put to the sword (at least, not unless you are leading a screaming mob towards an appropriate target at the time). And that is precisely the problem, as far as the Australian government is concerned. John Howard wants to move beyond incitement into throwing people in jail simply for saying things he doesn't like. And that is a gross violation of free speech which is fundamentally incompatible with a free and democratic society.