Protecting the right to protest
Community Legal Centres Australia supports the right to protest as fundamental to our democracy. The first community legal centres were established more than half a century ago by grassroots activists and advocates frustrated and angered by the injustices faced by their communities. They were responding to the unfairnesses of a legal system that punished poverty and difference.
The community legal centres movement was born out of protest, activism and community action, and we recognise the crucial role protest movements play in winning justice for people, communities and the environment to this day.
For years, the right to protest has been under sustained attack across this continent. As highlighted by the Human Rights Law Centre, these threats have grown considerably with the introduction of damaging new laws in several states: in 2022-23, the NSW, SA, Victorian and Tasmanian Governments each introduced draconian new laws which erode the rights of protesters and threaten them with jail time.
The criminalisation of peaceful protest has far-reaching and damaging implications for our democracy and particularly for the people and communities in our society that already face the greatest structural barriers to justice – those we make it our business as a community legal centres movement to support.
The past fortnight has seen disturbing developments for expanded police powers to target protest movements in WA and NSW
WA Police have subpoenaed the ABC 4 Corners program to seize what could be hundreds of hours of footage, taken over months, of activists organising around climate justice, for a story that aired on Monday, 9 October. WA activists have invited trusted and credible reporters into their houses, organisations, meetings and trainings, and shared their reasons for resisting fossil fuel expansion. They now face having all raw footage handed to police.
The intelligence WA Police may be able to gather from ABC footage could put many peaceful climate activists at risk. This subpoena threatens both the right to protest, and press freedom – cornerstones of our democracy. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), which represents more than 5,000 journalists nationally, has condemned the WA Police’s demand for footage, stating:
This is a direct threat to press freedom and the ability of investigative journalists to cover this important story. Protecting sources is sacrosanct for journalists. To reveal sources is contrary to the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics.
This law is an outrageous over-reach and the WA Police should not proceed with this action. It’s ironic that a story looking at the extreme measures being used by the powerful to shutdown climate activism is itself under threat by extreme measures.
Karen Percy, MEAA Media Federal President
Activists involved are asking civil society organisations to join in contacting the ABC and demanding they refuse to participate. They are tweeting @ABCAustralia and @AbcNews using #ProtectJournalism #PressFreedom.
Community Legal Centres Australia intend to write directly to the ABC on this matter, and we encourage organisations in our membership to do the same. More information from CounterAct here.
New South Wales
Community Legal Centres Australia and several community legal centres in our membership last week signed on to an open letter calling on NSW Premier Chris Minns to publicly affirm his government’s support for the right to protest. This followed some deeply worrying statements from the NSW Government in support of prohibiting the right to protest and increased use of force by police in shutting down protest activity.
Meanwhile, NSW Police made repeated statements throughout the week leading up to Sydney’s pro-Palestine rally on Sunday that they may authorise extraordinary powers to profile, surveil, target, and search people they believe may be connected to protest activity. NSW Police also announced ‘Operation Shelter’, to “capture all intelligence available to [them] in relation to community sentiment, potential protest activity and potential demonstrations that might take place in the future”. These developments represent an opportunistic and worrying erosion of the right to protest, and expansion of police powers.
The Human Rights Law Centre has condemned the NSW Police and Government crackdown on pro-Palestine protests:
The NSW Police and Government must protect the right of Palestinian people and their supporters to have their voices heard at a critical moment for their country and respond only to those who engage in unlawful actions. Any approach that demonises and punishes thousands of people for the actions of a few, is disproportionate and a breach of human rights.
Requiring peaceful protesters to seek authorisation to protest, or face jail time and a $22 000 fine, is undemocratic and completely unjustified in Australia. Palestinian communities must not be criminalised in this crucial moment, while they raise awareness of what is happening in their home.
Human Rights Law Centre
Community legal centres can support protestor safety
In Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane there are established ‘legal observer’ collectives. Legal observers are trained volunteers who support the legal rights of activists at protests and actions, in four ways:
- Deterrence: the presence of legal observers can act as a deterrence to potential police overreach.
- Sharing information: giving out materials and having conversations to let protestors know their rights.
- Observing general policing: keeping track of things like numbers and locations of police, police weaponry, police tactics and police surveillance teams.
- Observing specific incidents: monitoring arrests and assaults on protestors by police, to ensure protestors can access legal support, and to support legal challenges to police excessive force or wrongful arrest.
The community legal centres movement has a long history of engaging in legal observing roles to support protest activities, and many in the sector continue to do this work to this day — including over this past weekend’s protests.
If you would like to become a legal observer or seek further information, reach out to your local collective. You do not need to be a lawyer to be a legal observer.
Legal Observers NSW – https://legalobserversnsw.org/get-involved/
Melbourne Activist Legal Support – https://mals.au/contact/
Action Ready (QLD) – https://www.actionreadyqld.com/contact-us