Anti-protest laws are stifling free speech in Australia

In January 2016, Bob Brown – the founding member and former leader of the Australian Greens – walked into the Lapoinya forest of north-west Tasmania and refused to leave an area set aside for logging. Brown was arrested, sparking a landmark case regarding freedom of speech and political protest in Australia.

Although the charges against Brown and his co-accused, Jessica Hoyt, were dropped in the succeeding months, Brown announced that he would take his case all the way to the top. This month, Brown has been at the High Court of Australia, arguing that anti-protest legislation in Tasmania breaches the constitution and restricts political expression.

Tasmania has introduced stricter anti-protest laws in recent years, as have other parts of Australia. In 2014, the Liberal government in Tasmania, headed by Will Hodgman, condemned environmental protesters as ‘extremists’. They were said to be conniving to ‘destroy the livelihoods’ of workers across the state. Tasmanians, the Liberals said, should not have to ‘tolerate’ these extremists.

A spokesperson from the Bob Brown Foundation rightly dubbed the new laws ‘draconian’. Demonstrating on ‘business premises’ and refusing to leave when asked by police risks a fine of 10,000 Australian dollars. And that’s nothing compared with the charge of ‘threatening damage or risk’ to business premises, which could lead to fines of up to 250,000 Australian dollars or five years’ imprisonment.

The extraordinarily harsh penalties have even attracted criticism from the United Nations, which has labelled them ‘disproportionate’ and ‘unnecessary’. What’s more, the wording of the law is far too broad. ‘Business premises’, for instance, could refer to a wide variety of sites, including publicly owned forests.

The line between legitimate protest and unlawful obstruction needs to be carefully drawn. But these excessive laws make it impossible to make that determination. No government should have the right to stifle protest in this way. Australia, and the rest of the world, should be very wary of the outcome of this case.

Nick Rodway is a writer based in Australia.

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