Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rudman on sedition

The Herald's Brian Rudman responds to the sentencing of Tim Selwyn with a call for people to speak up and scrap the old sedition law:

The jailing of Tim Selwyn for sedition should send a shiver up the spine of anyone whose business is words and ideas. And in a free and open democracy, that's every one of us.

That the police, off their own bat, can prosecute a pamphleteer for sedition, persuading a jury that the Government was in danger of being overthrown unlawfully as a result of his scribblings, drags us into the same class as "guided" democracies such as Singapore.

Rudman points out that statements as seditious as Selwyn's were made on an almost daily basis during recent periods of civil protest (the 60's, the Maori sovereignty movement, the Springbok Tour, nuclear-ship visits, gay rights, women's rights) - and yet none resulted in prosecution, much less the unalwful overthrow of the government. Reviving the law then seems both totally unjustified, and a threat to the greatly enhanced freedom of speech we have won since the 60's. If they could manage without it during the height of the Springbok Tour ("the closest [modern] New Zealand has come to civil war"), then surely we can manage without it now.

Rudman concludes:

Compared with the sixties, we now live in a golden age of free speech and free expression. Who of us would want to go back? The conviction and jailing of someone for exercising this new openness are chilling reminders of those bad old days. The quicker the sedition law is repealed the better.

Obviously, I agree.


"How has this prosecution in anyone undermined freedom of expression?"

What is worrying isn't that Selwyn was prosecuted, but what the charges were. I have no issue with him being prosecuted for wilful damage; for ripping off we taxpayers or for threatening behaviour. My issue with him being charged on sedition is that the law against sedition only protects the Establishment and not New Zealanders as a whole.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/19/2006 06:12:00 PM

well, so no takers on how this undermines freedom of expression.

" ...only protects the only protects the Establishment". The "Establishment" being the democratic process. Worthy of protection I would have thought.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/19/2006 09:47:00 PM

Did the police decide to prosecute "off their own bat" as Rudman says...or did Helen take the incident very very personally?

Posted by Michael : 7/19/2006 09:59:00 PM

Neil, in order to have "undermined the democratic process" Selwyn would have had to have successfully incited someone else to follow in his own foolish footsteps. How can you be guilty of sedition if you failed in the attempt? How can it be a crime if no one was harmed? I don't beleive we should prosecute free speech but if we do then the bar should be set a lot higher than this ffs. Don't the police have murderers to catch?

Posted by Michael : 7/19/2006 10:05:00 PM

Freedom to protest and express you views is one thing, but Tim stepped just over the edge of an important line...he directed his protest very personally at the Prime Minister.

What was his next burn down the PM's Mt Eden home just up the road? Well I doubt Tim would have been quite that foolish, but you can see where the logical escalation of his actions was going to take him, if not otherwised discouraged.

I agree that the rather dated law of sedition has proven a creaky old bludgeon to use against Tim, but at the same time what he was doing was not some minor act of vandalism. If not sedition, then what alternative?

Posted by Anonymous : 7/20/2006 09:42:00 AM

Here we differ, Logix: what he was doing WAS vandalism, plain and simple, and there is already a law against it which could have been used. Had he progressed to setting the PM's house on fire, it turns out that arson is a crime. And so on.

It seems as though you are proposing to criminalise opinions or states of mind, rather than actions, and that really worries me.

Posted by stephen : 7/20/2006 12:19:00 PM

Stephen: and just to give a concrete example: while I loathe with passion the pro child-beating views of Family Integrity, I don't doubt for a moment their right to express them. But arguably, their little pamplet is covered by the law, as it encourages violence (against children), and possibly lawlessness (depending on whether you believe that their preferred beating technique is illegal or not).

To use another example: there were numerous prosecutions in the 20's and 30's of people for selling or distributing communist material, which advocated (at some stage in the indefinite future) proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism and improve the lot of the poor. Again, no matter what you think about the pros and cons of communism, there shouldn't be any question that you're allowed to advocate such in a democratic society. What crosses the line is when you start seriously plotting to actually do it - when advocacy becomes conspiracy (and can easily be prosecuted as such).

The problem with the law at the moment is that it criminalises far too much, and that therefore our freedom of speech hinges entirely on the police's prosecutorial discretion. I think the historical record shows that that simply cannot be trusted, and that this offence is used primarily if not solely as a tool of persecution.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/20/2006 12:57:00 PM

Michael: not necessarily successfully, but at least credibly, and with a specific offence in mind. And I don't think anyone reading his leaflet could remotely seriously argue that - or at least not without narrowing freedom of speech so greatly that it would be utterly worthless.

Democratic debate is messy, it is impassioned, it involves the advocacy of all sorts of undesirable things (including, at times, criminal activity and revolution). But the response to that is more debate, not less. If someone stands up and says "we should get our way by smashing windows", the correct response is to say that that's a stupid idea - not stick people in jail for merely arguing (as opposed to doing or conspiring to do) it.

But then, I'm clearly far more comfortable with dissenting opinions and robust public argument than people like Neil.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/20/2006 01:40:00 PM


It seems as though you are proposing to criminalise opinions or states of mind, rather than actions, and that really worries me.

Attacking the PM's Electoral Office, as distinct from the fish and chip shop next door, is materially more substantial than mere vandalism. One is an act of mindless petty destruction, the other an act aimed closely at the fabric of the body politic.

The context is quite different, just as assasinating a political leader of a nation is more than an act of murder.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/20/2006 08:18:00 PM

"Attacking the PM's Electoral Office, as distinct from the fish and chip shop next door, is materially more substantial than mere vandalism."

Here you and I must disagree. The PM may have been elected to office, but should be just another citizen in the eyes of the law.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/20/2006 09:30:00 PM