‘Sedition’ should go, focus on urging violence

Monday, 29 May 2006: The term ‘sedition’ should be removed from the federal statute book, and offences urging force or violence against the government or community groups should be redrafted, the Australian Law Reform Commission said today.

Releasing a Discussion Paper (DP 71) on federal sedition laws, ALRC President Professor David Weisbrot said the proposals aimed to ensure “there is a bright line between freedom of expression—even when exercised in a confronting or unpopular manner—and the reach of the criminal law.

“Australians place a very high value on free speech and robust political debate. There is no reason these offences, which properly target the urging of force or violence, cannot be framed in such a way to avoid capturing dissenting views and opinions or stifling the work of journalists, cartoonists, artists and film makers, either directly or through the ‘chilling effect’ of self-censorship.”

The Attorney-General has asked the ALRC to consider whether the sedition laws ‘modernised’ in the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 (Cth) effectively address the problem of ‘intentionally urging others to use force or violence’ and whether ‘sedition’ is the appropriate term to describe these offences.

“Given its history, the term ‘sedition’ is much too closely associated in the public mind with punishment of those who criticise the established order,” said Prof Weisbrot.

“However, the new offences (in s 80.2 of the Criminal Code) sensibly shift the focus away from ‘mere criticism’ to conduct urging others to use force or violence to overthrow the Constitution or governmental authority, interfere in free elections, or to target particular groups within the community. This is really just another form of the longstanding offence of incitement to violence. Continued use of the term ‘sedition’ only confuses the issues.”

Prof Weisbrot said the ALRC makes 25 proposals for reform. “The provisions need amendment to make clear that the Crown must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person intentionally urged others to use force or violence, and intended that this force or violence would occur.

“We also propose that in applying the law to a particular case, the jury must take into account the context in which the conduct occurred, such as whether it was part of an artistic performance or exhibition, or a genuine academic, artistic or scientific discussion, or an industrial dispute, or in a news report or commentary about a matter of public interest,” Professor Weisbrot said.

Other key proposals include:

  • amendments to offences related to ‘assisting’ an enemy at war with Australia or engaged in armed hostilities against the ADF to clarify that this refers to material assistance—such as arms, funds, personnel or strategic information—rather than criticism of government policy;
  • repeal of the outdated provisions in the Crimes Act concerning ‘unlawful associations’, which effectively have been superseded by more recent laws on terrorist organisations; and
  • ruling out the need to introduce a UK-style offence of ‘glorification of terrorism’.

The ALRC is seeking community feedback on the proposals in the Discussion Paper before a final report is completed. Submissions close on Monday, 3 July 2006.