COVID-safe protesters launch legal challenge against fines

Greens MLC Abigail Boyd (front) and Paddy Gibson (back) outside the Supreme Court. Photo: Still taken from the National Justice Project/Facebook video

The New South Wales Supreme Court on September 1 began to hear a challenge that aims to overturn NSW Police fines against protesters during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Human rights lawyers argue that the fines, issued under the COVID-19 Public Health Orders, breach the Constitution’s implied right of freedom of political communication.

The court will hear two test cases, while up to 40 cases remain on hold in lower courts until the higher court makes a decision.

The fines relate to protests in 2020 against Black deaths in custody, defending LGBTIQ rights and higher education.

Paddy Gibson from the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education & Research, said outside the Supreme Court: “A number of people were arrested in July 2020 at a Black Lives Matter protest in which Aboriginal people joined in a worldwide movement for justice.

“The protest was held with full support of local Aboriginal elders and with every measure taken to remain COVID-19 safe. Moreover, the protest occurred outside the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, when other public events were held without arrests.”

Emma Hearne, associate legal director of the National Justice Project (NJP), said the organisation would fight “alongside ordinary citizens” for the right to protest.

“There is no doubt that the global pandemic warranted the government creating laws to safeguard public health. In fact, our clients sought to take every possible precaution to make these protests COVID-safe.”

Hearne said the NSW government had failed to allow COVID-safe protests in its Public Health Orders while giving the green light to sporting events, weddings and even corporate functions. “That meant protesters and our democracy suffered.”

Hearne said it is “essential for our democracy” that people have freedom of political communication and “one of the most effective ways of expressing that, proven time and time again throughout history is through protests”.

The NJP is calling on the NSW government and police to revoke the unjust fines.

Greens MLC Abigail Boyd criticised the NSW government for passing some of the most “draconian and authoritarian anti-protest laws” in the world.

Boyd said the NSW Greens had tried to move several disallowance motions but, because “Labor is standing in lock-step with the government”, the laws remain on the books.