About the Anti-Mask (Public Order) Laws

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Since our article Anti-Mask Laws proposed in Victoria, was published the Crimes Amendment (Public Order) Bill 2017 has been passed in the Victorian Legislative Assembly and is now law in Victoria.

This article has been updated on 21 June 2018.


PLEASE NOTE: Masks are NOT be banned at all protest events – but ONLY those held in a area that police have declared a ‘designated area’.  (See below for more detail.)


The CRIMES AMENDMENT (PUBLIC ORDER) BILL 2017 was introduced into parliament by the Victorian Attorney General, Martin Pakula to allow “new measures to prevent serious disturbances of public order, including outbreaks of violence at protests, demonstrations and other public events.”

The intense media and public outcry after the clashes between neo-nazi and Antifa groups in Coburg in May 2016 meant that the pressure was on to introduce laws that make it look like the government is doing something about this.

Since then, the rationale for these laws was also conflated with the various outbreaks of youth violence at public events such at the Moomba brawling in 2016.

DESIGNATED AREAS

To understand how these new laws  work you need to understand how ‘Designated Areas’ already work in Victoria

The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police already has the power to declare a specific area or event to be a ‘designated area’ under the Control of Weapons Act 1990 (Section 10D or 10E) if they believe or assess that there was previous use of weapons in that area or during previous occasions of the event or that they assess that there is a ‘likelihood that violence or disorder involving the use of weapons will occur in that area’.

These ‘designated areas’ were introduced in 2009 to allow police to deal with the perceived rise in youth knife-related crime several years ago, which was disputed at the time.)  Designated areas are now increasingly being used in protest situations.

This provides police with additional powers to search people and vehicles without warrant within that defined area for up to 12 hours.

The new Act provides additional powers for police within those designated areas.

NEW POLICE POWERS

The Act provides additional police powers in designated areas to require a person wearing a face covering to either remove their face covering or leave the area immediately

A police officer who reasonably believes a person intends to use the kind of violent and antisocial behaviour that would constitute one of the new public order offences of affray or violent disorder created by this Act is able to direct a person to leave a designated area.

If the person refuses to comply with this order to leave, they will be committing an offence.

In detail, this Act amends the Control of Weapons Act 1990 with

1) new section 10KA(1) which would allow a police officer to direct a person wearing a face covering to leave a designated area if the person refuses to remove it when requested.

(the police officer must reasonably believe the person is wearing the face covering primarily to conceal his or her identity or to protect himself or herself from the effects of crowd-controlling substances such as capsicum spray)

NEW OFFENCES

The Act amends the Crimes Act 1958 to abolish the common law offences of affray, rout and riot and create new statutory offences of affray and violent disorder (new sections 195H or 195I)

Affray now captures all conduct that currently constitutes the common-law offence of affray. “uses or threatens unlawful violence and whose conduct would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to be terrified” – Maximum penalty 5 years

Violent disorder, committed when six or more persons use violence for a common purpose, and that conduct damages property or causes injury to a person – Maximum penalty 10 years

If committed wearing a face covering the maximum penalty rises to 7 years for affray and 15 years for violent disorder.

OUR CONCERNS

Any laws targeting protesting can dangerously impinge upon basic freedoms of speech, expression and assembly.

It is important to acknowledge that it is already a crime in Victoria to be disguised with “unlawful intent” under s 49C of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic).

USE OF MASKS AS POLITICAL EXPRESSION

Police already asking people to remove masks at protests. this is likely to increase with these new laws.

The new law means Police become arbiters of expression versus intent to commit violence.

THE RIGHT TO ANONYMITY

“The right to protest should not be contingent on consent to surveillance” – Liberty Victoria.

At times, particularly in circumstances where a protest is about controversial views, maintaining our anonymity may be critical to allowing freedom of association.

If attending a protest necessarily entails intrusive surveillance from the state or the threat of violence from other groups then you cannot really say we have genuine ‘freedom’ of peaceful assembly.

Furthermore, Victoria Police use of Facial Recognition Technology is currently unregulated

MASKS AS PROTECTION

Masks are commonly used at protests to protect attendeees from OC foam (Including journalists, observers, medics etc).

The use of OC, capsicum foam at protests in Victoria has skyrocketed.

It is inevitable that many people in the vicinity including other police, can be severely affected. In some incidents up to 70 members of the public were affected by spray at any one time.

Scarves, goggles, gas masks or handkerchiefs are used by journalists, media photographers, legal observers, street medics or bystanders.

This law now criminalises that practice.

THE Act CONTAINS NO EXEMPTIONS OR PROTECTIONS

Some anti-mask laws in other countries include exemptions for wearing masks for religious purposes, for theatrical productions, sporting events, parades, civil defence drills and protection from severe weather.

Some, but not all, include exemptions for political expression. There are currently no protections or exemptions in current Act.

STATUS IN PARLIAMENT

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) examined the Bill  and referred it back to Parliament for its consideration on the question “whether or not clauses 6 and 7 (police powers in 10KA(1) etc) are suitable, necessary and proportionate limitations on the implied freedom of political communication.”

The Bill was accented to and is now law in Victoria.


The new Act can be read online here: http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/num_act/claoa201732o2017432/

Some more detailed critique of the law here:  https://melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org/2017/03/14/anti-mask-laws-proposed-in-victoria/

and http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/new-laws-to-stamp-out-violence-at-public-events/

Last year the Human Rights Law Centre launched a report, Safeguarding Democracy, that documents the unmistakable trend of governments at national and state level steadily chipping away at free speech, a free press, peaceful assembly, open government and the rule of law – some of the foundations of our democracy.

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Lawful or Unlawful?

“I support your right to protest, as long as you don’t break the law…”

“I support your right to protest, as long as you don’t break the law”. How many times have you heard this statement from police, from politicians, from passers by, or even friends and family?

legal-illegalA Victorian Premier, when questioned about protesters picketing a company building said that while he respected the right of people to protest peacefully, “they have no right to break the law.”[1]

“The Government supports peoples’ right to protest lawfully. These amendments will preserve that right, so long as the protest activities do not put anyone’s safety at risk or break the law” states another government media release a few years back.

This supposed support for the right to protest, as long as it is “lawful”, assumes a great number of things. It assumes that in Australia we have ample and sufficient political space for us to protest. However, the criminal law throughout Australia encompasses a huge range of offenses that can be and are used against activists if the police or the government of the day choose. How much political space we actually have depends on a complex range of factors.

It also assumes a level of legal clarity that simply does not exist. When it comes to public protests or political actions, what is lawful and unlawful is often very confusing and is always changing as new laws are introduced and old laws re-applied or changed. Police will often use a legal construct called ‘Breach of the Peace‘ as the reason to arrest, to move-on or use force against protesters – yet that legal term is extraordinarily vague and open almost entirely to the police member’s interpretation and ‘reasonable belief’.

Image result for student protest arrest melbourneAlthough lawyers can provide advice about what the current law says and what charges are possible, the way in which police and government apply and use the law is always changing and hard to pin down.

Police have a fair degree of discretion about how they apply a particular law, what arrest power they use and what charges to lay at a particular time. They decide whether they arrest or charge at all. Police may simply stand by when activists chalk on the road during one protest, or they may arrest people at a different protest for doing exactly the same thing.

Seemingly innocuous activities such as honking your horn as you drive past a picket or weaving ribbon through a wire fence have been interpreted as offenses in Australia. Mostly they are ignored – but police could charge you with a traffic offense if they choose to.

When activists camp on public land at or near the site of a protest, local council powers may be used by police even when no issue of trespass arises. Decades old and archaic council by-laws can be revived for an anti-protest purpose. Activists handing out leaflets in Melbourne were once fined using a by-law that hadn’t been enforced since the 1960s.[2]

When existing laws are not adequate to restrict activists or stifle our ability to protest, a new law can be created, sometimes specifically to deal with a particular protest.

The famous Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra is a classic example of this. On 26th January 1972, when four Aboriginal men, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey, set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra overnight it was lawful to camp on the lawns opposite the then Parliament House.

However, after the Embassy had grown in size and had become a powerful international symbol of Aboriginal land rights, the government made a minor amendment to the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance in a midnight sitting which banned camping on unleased Commonwealth land within Canberra. Suddenly, the Tent Embassy was unlawful.

On July 20, just hours after the new law came into effect, police moved in forcibly evicting the tents and arresting activists.

People who say that they support protest as long as it doesn’t break the law’, are also saying that they believe  activist do not really need to break the law in order to be effective. Well, history says otherwise.

Sometimes breaking the law is the whole point

Civil disobedience is the deliberate and conscious refusal to obey, or violation of, a law believed to be unjust.

The deliberate violation of laws has played a crucial part in Australian political history. The Aboriginal land rights and civil rights movement, union struggles for wages and the eight hour day, women’s campaigns for the vote, and the modern peace, social justice and environmental movements have all been effective. Hundreds of people have been arrested in large civil disobedience actions throughout Australia at many protests against US bases, uranium mines, asylum seeker detention centres and blockades of old growth logging operations.

A famous and influential theorist of civil disobedience in the western world was Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau’s essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless other activists.

He said,

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much for the right Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. . . the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law.”

The argument that the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law is central to all civil disobedience.

To break or not to break the law…

Although some activists may knowingly break laws, or engage in deliberate civil disobedience, not all activists deliberately seek to break the law.

Those who do so often consider and weigh up the costs and consequences of unlawful action carefully and make clear choices.

Even activists who go to great lengths to stay within the law can inadvertently break laws and find themselves arrested. Laws can be used against activists in order to control or stifle protest and dissent even when there is no intention by activists to break the law.

It is not the case that activists are criminals. It is more often the case of the legal system working to criminalise activists.

So why is this important?

This so called distinction, between ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ forms of protest is an artificial and deliberate one.

The distinction is used politically to restrict protest action to what is perceived to be less threatening; protest that is easier to police and contain.

The distinction is also used in an attempt to divide  protest movements into those engaged in ‘lawful’ protests from those who may used ‘unlawful’ forms of protest of resistance – a divisive tactic aimed at deterring more conservative groups or members of the public from working with groups involved with civil disobedience.

The ‘lawful / unlawful’ distinction attempts to generate an arbitrary boundary around forms of protest available to the movement – a boundary that at all times should remain within the control of the movement itself.

Anthony Kelly

Anthony is a member of Melbourne Activist Legal Support and the organiser of multiple Legal and Human Rights Observer teams since the World Economic Forum protests in 2001.

This article originally appeared in an earlier form on activistrights.org.au, published by the Fitzroy Legal Service. These views are his own. 

[1] ‘Police union calls for East West Link protesters to be charged’ by Matt Johnston, Herald Sun, 6 November 2013.

[2] ‘Mounted Police attached peaceful Nike picket’, by James Grafti, Green Left Weekly, 9 May 2001