Sedition law review must strike a delicate balance

Thursday, 2 March 2006: Concern to protect the security of Australians here and abroad must be balanced against the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association, in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s new inquiry into controversial federal sedition laws.

ALRC President Professor David Weisbrot said that Australians place a “very high premium on free speech and on the importance of robust political debate and commentary”.

“However, all democratic societies place some limits on free speech—for example, through defamation laws and prohibitions on obscenity and racial vilification. If restrictions are merited, then it becomes a matter of finding the acceptable balance in a tolerant society,” Prof Weisbrot said.

The attempt to modernise the old sedition offences in the Crimes Act was part of the federal Government’s Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005 , which targets activity promoting terrorist violence.

The sedition provisions were controversial, with concerns expressed through the media and identified by a Senate inquiry that the laws may intrude unreasonably upon freedom of speech, and stifle or punish sharp criticism of government policy.

Late last year Attorney-General Philip Ruddock MP foreshadowed an independent review of the new sedition laws, and today provided the ALRC with formal terms of reference for this purpose.

The ALRC review of the sedition provisions will consider whether:

  • the amendments effectively address the problem of ‘intentionally urging others to use force or violence against any group within the community’, or against Australians or our defence forces overseas; and
  • ‘sedition’ is in fact the appropriate term to identify this type of conduct.

“The ALRC often encounters this sort of balancing act in our work. For example, our recent inquiry into the protection of classified and security sensitive information required us to strike a creative balance among national security interests, the rights of an accused person, and the general public interest in fair and open court proceedings,” Prof Weisbrot said.

He said the inquiry had an extremely tight schedule. A Discussion Paper containing draft proposals for reform will be published as soon as possible, with the final report to follow later.

“We will endeavour to consult as widely as possible in the broader community, and seek out relevant experts, and groups with an interest in the subject—including prosecutors and defence counsel, the media, human rights experts and organisations, and police and security forces.

“We encourage anyone with an interest to register on the ALRC’s web site,” Prof Weisbrot said.

Further information on the inquiry, including the full Terms of Reference, is available online at the ALRC’s web site.