Sunday, January 30, 2005

An archaic law that must be repealed

The charging of Tim Selwyn with publishing a seditious statement over the pamphlets distributed as part of the axe attack on the Prime Minister's electorate office last year marks a new low for freedom in this country. Here a man is facing up to two years in jail, not because of something he did (that is covered by a seperate charge of conspiring to commit criminal damage), but because of something he said. This criminalisation of speech is an affront to our democratic values which must be ended.

The charges have been brought under an archaic section of the law which criminalises making, publishing, or disseminating any statement expressing a"seditious intention". A "seditious intention" is defined as an intention to "bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against" the Queen or the government, to "incite... or encourage violence, lawlessness, or disorder" or any offence that is "prejudicial to the public safety", to incite "hostility or ill will" between different classes or groups of people, or to incite the public to bring about constitutional change by unlawful means. While some of this sounds reasonable, or even necessary to protect the rule of law, there is a serious problem: the question of what excites "disaffection", "lawlessness" or "hostility" is entirely at the whim of the authorities. And generally, it has been used as a tool of political persecution. In the past, sedition charges have been brought against unionists, conscientious objectors, and those advocating unpopular or "unpatriotic" political causes. Peter Fraser (the future Labour Prime Minister) was jailed for sedition in 1916 for advocating the repeal of conscription, and Bishop James Liston was charged in 1922 over a St Patrick's Day speech criticising the behaviour of the British in Ireland. Conceivably, such charges could also be brought against those agitating for republicanism, urging civil disobedience, or questioning the prevailing interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi.

This history of abuse shows the fundamental problem with laws against sedition: they are primarily targeted not at immediate incitement, but at abstract advocacy. Calling for an end to conscription, for Irish independence, or even for proletarian revolution does not entail any immediate danger to people or property which would justify criminal sanction. Instead, they are simply ideas the governments of the day did not like. But in a free and democratic society, the government should not be dictating what its citizens are allowed to think and say. Democracies do not believe in "ThoughtCrime".

The criminalisation of sedition is fundamentally incompatible with modern conceptions of a free and democratic society, and fundamentally incompatible with the affirmation of the right to freedom of expression in our Bill of Rights Act. It is an archaic remainder of a bygone age which has no place in modern New Zealand. It is time for this law to go.