Thursday, January 07, 2010

Absolutely outrageous

The police arrested another five people at the Auckland tennis tournament today, apparently for using loudhailers as part of their protest. So the message seems to be that you are free to speak, but only if no-one can hear you. This is as outrageous as it is ridiculous. Again, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court sets a very high bar on the level of disruption which must be tolerated in public space. And merely making noise to send a message that people do not want to hear does not cut it. According to Rees v Police (2006) [PDF],

It is not correct to say that in exercising the right to protest, a citizen has the duty not to annoy. It is permissible, within limits, for a citizen to annoy others while protesting. It is not enough that the conduct is irritating or ill mannered or in bad taste. Protestors often set out to cause irritation, to attract attention to their message. That is not in itself illegitimate, or a breach of the criminal law. There is a line beyond which protestors cannot cross without offending the criminal law, and that line involves annoyance beyond that which is normal and acceptable to New Zealanders. Loud protests through a megaphone are not uncommon in New Zealand streets. It is a method of protest that is often used. It is not a breach of our criminal law in itself to use such a method of protest. It is not a breach of our criminal law to annoy others while doing so.
The police are clearly violating the law here, using unlawful arrests to silence dissent. And unfortunately, they will likely get away with it. The courts will kick the charges (assuming the police even bother taking them that far), but by that time it will be too late - the protestors will have been silenced when it mattered, on the day. And the officers who did it, thugs who offend against our right to free speech, will face no consequences at all for doing so.

The latter has to change. Once upon a time, police could be sued in civil court for kidnapping or assault if they abused their powers of arrest. Its high time we bought that right to civil action back. The only way to force the police to obey the law (rather than making it up as they go along to serve the interests of the rich and powerful) is to ensure that they, too, can be held legally responsible when they breach it. And until we do that, then the police will continue to abuse their powers with impunity.