'Free speech' not so free

March 30, 2007

This is an account of an encounter I had with police officers on March 6 outside the federal Parliament House. At about 3.30pm that day, I went there with the intention of standing in the forecourt and holding up a "Bring David Hicks Home!" poster.

As I approached the forecourt, a police officer told me that I was not permitted to hold any poster there, and that all such activity had to be carried out on the grassed area (near the Federation Stone) on the other side of the road. I walked to the grassed area, escorted by another officer (this one on a bicycle), and then stood there holding up the poster.

After about five minutes, the bicycled officer approached me and said that his boss wanted to know my name and whether I was there as an individual or as part of a group. Despite my hesitation, he was insistent, so I told him my name and that I was there as an individual.

I resumed my silent protest. Five minutes later, the officer returned and told me his boss needed my name, address, and driver's licence and car registration numbers.

I told him I was merely exercising my right to free speech and asked him about the consequences if I didn't give him the details. He pulled a copy of the Crimes Act from his pocket and said that any refusal to provide all the information he demanded would be considered as obstructing the duty of an police officer. It would result in a fine or a short jail term.

Suitably chastened, I gave him the details. I asked him if my name would be recorded every time I turned up to protest, on an individual, ad-hoc basis. He said it would.

I told him that this encounter had been very educational, as I had previously told my students that it was great that we lived in Australia where we had free speech. I would now have to tell them that, yes, they had the freedom to go to Parliament House and express an opinion, but they would have to have their names recorded by police whenever they did so. I wonder how enthusiastic they will be to exercise their "freedoms"?

The police officer said that statistics are kept as to who protests outside Parliament House and on what issues, and that these details are sent to ministers.

I wonder, was my name recorded because of its perceived political content? If I'd held up a sign saying "Good on you, John" (Howard), would my name have been recorded by the police?

Is speech only free when it is free of any questioning of government policy? Is it better if it agrees with government policy such as, "Keep Hicks in Guantanamo, Thanks for not challenging US renditions/torture program"?

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