Sunday, March 06, 2005

Sedition by Example VI: Hatty Weitzel

(Part of an ongoing series aiming to excite disaffection against our law against sedition and thereby incite change...)

Excerpt from a story appearing under the headline "Banned Literature", reporting on the appearances before Mr F. Hunt, S.M., of three people on charges of selling seditious material (The Evening Post, Friday, August 18, 1921):

A University Student

The next case taken was that of a young woman named Hedwig Weitzel, described as a student at the Training College, who was charged with selling on 19th June last, "The Communist," which encourages violence. Weitzel pleaded not guilty.

Constable McKay said he purchased the Communist paper from Miss Weitzel at the Communist Hall on the evening of 19th June.

To the Defendant: He first went to the hall on 11th June. He denied having sympathised with the movement, but said that he had signed a nomination paper.

Miss Weitzel made a lengthy statement. She said that it was a student's duty to make herself conversant with every school of thought. She did not know that the papers were banned; and, in fact, did not receive a notification to that effect until 5th August. Defendant produced a letter from the Customs Department, which, she said, stated that the books had only just been banned.

Mr Hunt: "This is only a notification of seizure."

Defendant: "Then we have not received any notification at all that the papers are prohibited." She did not consider the charge against her specific enough.

The Magistrate: "Here's an extract: 'Members must be prepared at any time to change their activities from legal to illegal.' That is plain enough, surely. I am going to convict you. What is the police report?"

An Unfavourable Report

Mr Macassey [the prosecutor] said that the police report was to the effect that Miss Weitzel was a B.A. of Victoria University College. She knew quite well the risks that she was taking in dabbling in matter of this kind. Her mother, a German, left for America some six months ago, taking two of her family with her, and had not since returned. Her father, also a German, died some four or five months ago. Neither had been naturalised, and during the war they were decidedly anti-British. During the war the family lived in Buller street, and the house was the rendezvous for anti-militarists and revolutionaries of a pronounced character, one of whom was married to defendant's sister. All these men were arrested and imprisoned for talking anti-conscription. It simply pleased the Weitzel family to encourage anything which would weaken Britain's fighting power. The defendant must have known all this, although she was young at the time. She was constantly at the Communist Hall, and was as much a Communist at heart as any of the party.

Weitzel's case was not unique, but was one of a great many prosecutions for sedition of those distributing communist literature (two others were tried on the same day and reported on in the same story). She was convicted, fined ten pounds, and given fourteen days to pay. The fine was paid by a group of female students who had accompanied her to court, and this sparked a furore in the media and in Parliament, and led to the passage of what is now s. 162 of the Education Act 1964, which requires all teachers to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown. The Act is still in force, and to this day teachers must swear to "be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law" - exactly as police and soldiers do.

(Sources: Evening Post, August 18, 1921; "'A Spirit of Bolshevism': The Weitzel Case of 1921 and its Impact on the New Zealand Educational System", by Roger Openshaw, Political Science, 33, 127 - 139)


Oh, and for those wanting to know more about "The Communist", sections were subsequently read out in Parliament. "The Communist" advocated "active propaganda for the idea of the revolutionary class struggle; the dictatorship of the proletariat and revolutionary mass action for the overthrow of the capitalist system and the bourgeois State"; it also said that "Propaganda should lead the struggle against that plague of the trade-union movement of the world, the policy of reconciliation with the bourgeois, and against the hopes of peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism; the bringing-together of the class-conscious revolutionary elements of the trade-union movement of the whole world, and the resolute battle against the Labour Bureau of the League of Nations and against the programme and tactics of the Amsterdam Trade-union International". This was described by one Member as "incitements to murder and pillage and violence"...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/06/2005 12:25:00 AM

Hmmm... it seems quaint now, but after the bloody revolutions of both Russia and China, I can see why governments wanted to suppress communist literature.

"...against the hopes of peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism..."

That is, there must be violent transition to socialism, which is what actually happened in other countries.

I dunno about this one, I'm tempted to put this on the side of actually seditious literature.

Posted by Muerk : 3/06/2005 11:24:00 AM

Surely a fundamental tenet of communist thought is the idea that there will not and cannot be a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism? Outlining this belief is scarcely threatening. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was also associated with violence.

Thinking about violence (and thinking that violence might be required to bring about a better society) is different from actually being violent, surely?

Also, wasn't the Russian Revolution "surprising" from a communist thinker's perspective, in that it was relatively non-bloody, by revolutionary standards? The actual overthrow of the Tsar and the interim government was achieved with an economy of violence?

Posted by dc_red : 3/07/2005 09:16:00 AM

Muerk: it is, however, just literature. And while it incites violence in the abstract, it is not immediate incitement to immediate violence here and now. It therefore fails the test set down by Mill's Law of causing immediate and actual harm to others.

No matter how much you want to push it, selling a newspaper is not the same as leading a torch-waving mob towards Parliament.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/07/2005 10:45:00 AM

I agree, it is literature, rather than a specific call to arms. Yup, fair point.

Posted by Muerk : 3/07/2005 02:08:00 PM

Action prejudicing the peace may be justified if the issue is important enough, but public suggestions or discussions about what the actions should be is something the government just has to tolerate in a free society. People will either act or not - then the Sate can counter-act rather than administer thought-crime prevention.

What the charge of sedition indicates is that the Police (and possibly the government) a)Believe that the statements are made sincerely, and b)Contain elements of truth or of popular sentiment enough to damage government credibility rather than actually making some people act on the statements.

According to the officer in charge of the case "Operation Barbarian" (which is a rather unfair description of the PM I thought) who is an immigrant Englishman with precious little local knowledge the "killer" statement in the flyers was "We call upon all like-minded New Zealanders to take similar action of their own to send a clear message..."

It all sounds a bit too vague to constitute a serious sedition. That, I think, may well occur during the course of, and because of, the trial. If the police consider that those flyers are seditious they have not read anything yet. [Jury to disregard]

Furthermore I support people who will circulate those flyers, discuss them and make their own decisions. Indeed, I understand that they think sedition is more likely to stick in a context of another offence (ie. the PM's office), but they are mistaken. If enough people make the same sorts of supposedly seditious statements it will diminish, undermine and ultimately ridicule the police position.

For us (or maybe just me at the moment) to have to ask ourselves whether some communication we send is seditious or not is a ridiculous situation. Roll on the sedition abolition Bill. It has one vote here.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/07/2005 05:26:00 PM

Tim: you know, encouraging people to make similar statements in order to show what an ass the law is is almost certainly seditious. Which I think rather proves your point...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/07/2005 11:21:00 PM