Cops, council trample free speech

January 31, 2001


BRISBANE — On January 25, two Green Left Weekly distributors staffing a campaign stall in the Queen Street Mall were accosted by police and a Brisbane City Council employee and threatened with arrest if they did not move on. The council employee accused the Green Left distributors of impeding pedestrians.

The Australian Republican Movement had set up a larger stall nearby and the presence two stalls in the "peaceful assembly zone" was just the ammunition needed for the council to abuse its authority.

After some debate, the council officer conceded that there was no legal basis to prevent more than one group assembling in the zone. After being summoned by the council employee, the police officers also failed to find a legal basis for "moving on" the distributors. Threats were issued by the council and police relating to various unwritten laws of "decency" as they scrambled to uncover a legal basis for action.

Eventually, the police came up with an extract from the Local Government Queen Street Mall Act 1981, drafted under the Joh Bjelke Peterson government. The law states that "A member of the police force may give to any person in the Mall such directions as are in his opinion necessary to eliminate an impediment to pedestrians or vehicles, in the Mall".

This was despite no member of the public having made a complaint to either the Green Left Weekly distributors or relevant authorities. No impediment to pedestrians was apparent. Police then threatened to arrest stall staff if they did not comply.

Such intimidation and abuse of authority highlights the disturbing frailty of free speech and assembly laws in this country. An officer of the law can silence and "move on" members of the community at his or her discretion.

Brisbane activists have fought against the council in the past for the right to distribute Green Left Weekly in the city centre. This latest assault on the activist community will not be ignored and activists involved in the incident have vowed to pursue the matter further and defend the right to free speech.

Green Left Weekly readers are urged to contact the Brisbane City Council to protest this attack on free speech. Contact <> for more details.

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