Support for anti-violence measures, not ‘sedition’

13 September 2006: Media commentators, satirists, artists and activists should be safe from controversial sedition laws—even if their ideas are unpopular and confronting—as long as they don’t urge the use of violence, under changes to federal law proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

The ALRC report, Fighting Words: A Review of Sedition Laws in Australia (ALRC Report 104), which makes 27 recommendations for reform of the legislation, was tabled in federal Parliament today.

ALRC President Prof David Weisbrot said the five-month inquiry concluded that the Australian Government should:

  • drop the ‘red rag’ term ‘sedition’ from federal laws;
  • further refine the existing law to require the Crown to prove that a person urged others to use force or violence against community groups or the institutions of democratic government, and with the intention that this violence would eventuate; and
  • lead a process through the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General to reform state and territory laws in this area “which mostly are a good deal worse than the federal law”.

The ALRC Inquiry was directed 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.

Prof Weisbrot said “We found that there is a real problem in the current law’s continued use of the word ‘sedition’, which is historically associated with stifling and punishing criticism of the established authority. Once you get beyond the term, there is support for the basic thrust of the new offences.

“The Report recognises that free speech and robust political debate are cornerstones of Australian society. The feedback we’ve received during our consultations makes it plain that we need a clear distinction in the law between free speech and conduct calculated to incite violence in the community—which properly should be the subject of the criminal law.

“Technically, the laws must be drafted in sufficiently precise terms to ensure they cannot be applied inappropriately or used in a way that would infringe upon freedom of expression—whether directly or by prompting artists or commentators to self-censor for fear of prosecution.

“Context is critical in these circumstances, so under our recommendations, courts would be required to take into account whether the conduct was a part of artistic expression; or genuine academic or scientific discussion; or a news report or commentary,” Prof Weisbrot said.

Other key recommendations include:

  • amending the offences of ‘assisting’ the enemy, to clarify that this refers to material assistance—such as providing arms, funds, personnel or strategic information;
  • outright repeal of the outdated ‘unlawful associations’ provisions in the Crimes Act, which have been superseded by more recent laws dealing with terrorist organisations; and
  • reviewing some old, related offences—such as ‘treachery’ and ‘sabotage’—to determine whether these should now be repealed or ‘modernised’.