Law advice body wants to scrap crime of sedition

By Simon Collins

New Zealand's Law Commission wants to abolish the crime of sedition - just a year after Australia created five new sedition offences as part of its "war on terror".

The commission says the ancient law of sedition "invades the democratic value of free speech" and should be repealed and not replaced.

In contrast, the Howard Government's Anti-Terrorism Act in Australia last year created five new seditious offences, including urging anyone to overthrow a lawful authority by force or violence, urging any group to use force or violence against another group and urging anyone to assist a country or organisation at war with Australia.

The Australian law provoked a wave of protest, a Senate inquiry and a report by the Australian Law Commission tabled last month which also recommended abolishing the word "sedition", although keeping the substance of the new offences. It said they should be tightened by requiring proof that an offender intended to provoke force or violence.

In New Zealand, no one was convicted of sedition for more than 50 years until July, when Auckland website editor Tim Selwyn was jailed for two months for a pamphlet urging people to "take similar action" to his own protest against the Foreshore and Seabed Act. He had smashed an axe into the window of Prime Minister Helen Clark's Mt Albert office.

Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer said he was astonished by the case because Selwyn was charged with so many other offences that the extra charge of sedition was unnecessary.

Last month police laid another sedition charge in the Rotorua District Court against a youth who is also charged with threatening to kill. Details have been suppressed but Sir Geoffrey said that, again, he could not see why police used the sedition law when other charges were available.

"They have never charged anyone for 50 years. Now they have just remembered it."

Sir Geoffrey said he decided more than 40 years ago that the sedition law should go. As Justice Minister he introduced legislation in 1989 to abolish it, among other things, but the bill lapsed when he changed portfolios.

The commission's new 105-page report argues that all the crimes of sedition under existing New Zealand law either restrict free speech unduly or could be covered by other laws.

The report says it should no longer be a crime at all "to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against, Her Majesty or the Government of New Zealand or the administration of justice".

"This is the sort of dissenting statement that, without more, should be protected by the principles of freedom of expression, and that a healthy democracy should be able to absorb."

Another offence of inciting political changes by unlawful means is already covered by the law against incitement to treason, it says.

Other offences to incite or procure violence, lawlessness or disorder, or any offence that prejudices public order or safety, are "too wide".

The offence of exciting "hostility or ill will between different classes of persons" is covered by the Human Rights Act if the language used is threatening, abusive or insulting, the report says.

The looser wording of the sedition law "has the potential to be used indiscriminately against religious or racial groups".

The report is open for submissions until December 15.

But National Party justice spokesman Richard Worth has warned against simply abolishing the sedition law. "I think there is still a case for retention of law in that area."


IT'S AGAINST THE LAW...

IN NEW ZEALAND

* To bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection, against Her Majesty, or the Government of New Zealand or the administration of justice.

* To incite the public or any persons or any class of persons to attempt to procure otherwise than by lawful means the alteration of any matter affecting the constitution, laws or government of New Zealand.

* To incite, procure or encourage violence, lawlessness or disorder.

* To incite, procure or encourage the commission of any offence that is prejudicial to the public safety or to the maintenance of public order.

* To excite such hostility or ill will between different classes of persons as may endanger the public safety.

- Crimes Act 1961, section 81


IN AUSTRALIA

* To urge another to overthrow, by force or violence, the constitution or government of the Commonwealth, a state or territory or lawful authority of the Government.

* To urge another to interfere by force or violence with the lawful process of parliamentary elections.

* To urge a group or groups to use force or violence against another group or groups.

* To urge a person to engage in conduct where the offender intends to assist an organisation or country at war with the Commonwealth.

* To urge a person to engage in armed hostilities against the Australian Defence Force.

- Anti-Terrorism Act (No.2) 2005, section 80.

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