By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
There are many global issues plaguing the world at present, and in the face of these, one way in which people endeavour to alter the development of human progress is through protesting.
Indeed, protests are fundamental for human rights and a democratic society in that they allow people to find a voice.
Equally, they are powerful in their ability to rattle the status quo – which is of particular significance given the politically tumultuous climate we currently find ourselves in.
But protests also have the potential to cause major disruptions and public nuisance, and sometimes this can land activists in more trouble than it may be worth.
Bizarre Stunt: Protesters Use Canoe to Stop Brisbane Traffic
Last month, climate change protesters in Brisbane carried out a bewildering demonstration in which they locked themselves inside a canoe strategically placed on Victoria Bridge (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-27/brisbane-protestors-lock-themselves-together/11251358), quickly resulting in traffic grinding to a halt.
On the morning of 27 June, the four activists from the group Extinction Rebellion jumped into the vessel and locked themselves together with elbow locks, blocking the northbound and southbound traffic lanes.
With traffic in both directions gridlocked, Queensland Police soon received a call alerting them of the disruption, and at about 7:30am, arrived at the scene along with emergency services.
However, little cooperation was granted by the protesters, and by 8:30am, police were forced to physically remove them by dragging the canoe off the bridge.
Police eventually took the canoe to an area close to the Southbank precinct, where firefighters began cutting the activists free with grinders.
The four protesters eventually released themselves around 10am, after which they were taken to the Brisbane watch house where they were charged with committing public nuisance and obstructing police.
Protesters Cause Disruption Because “All Life on Earth is at Risk”
When asked about the reason for their action (https://au.news.yahoo.com/brisbane-protests-environment-activists-block-bridge-canoe-012449772.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAGGTGv5rvPD5qqgkSaYsgAuKYx-vIwjJ-0S2K-iYov_ePeBXcRCjnLHR92ZKPguWnjB_SVijiZVlesOvNABTkv1AyqvdAUrdmI95eOihbd4wVC8ELZ5VG39Oi_qP7MhFvTQh4EYDwUnUN-vjcnl_5pkUy91tVnIETu5__cLkqMms), the protesters explained that it was because the Earth was facing “mass extinction”.
“If we do not stop this from happening … all life on earth is at risk,” one activist said.
Another said they would continue to peacefully rally until a change was made.
“I don’t necessarily want to be here but this is actually what I think is our last resort,” she said.
The members of Extinction Rebellion also made clear the protest was to highlight the suffering of “climate refugees”.
“The boat used is to draw attention to the millions of climate refugees that are already starting to suffer from desertification and rising oceans,” read a post on their Facebook page.
During the demonstration, the group held banners referencing Rebellion Day, scheduled for August 6.
The group claims that on that date, Brisbane will see hundreds of Non-Violent rebels orchestrate a shut-down of the business as usual of central Brisbane.
Not the First Time Protester Group Responsible for Causing Major Disorder
This was not the first time Extinction Rebellion was responsible for causing major disruptions to peak-hour traffic and committing public nuisance.
The group also protested earlier in June in the name of climate change when two members superglued themselves to a zebra crossing (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/blog/what-is-offensive-conduct/), shutting down Queen Street in Brisbane’s CBD.
The activists caused public nuisance and a state of disorder, leaving road users frenzied and frustrated.
A Balancing Act: Protecting Protest in Australia
In its report on protecting protest in Australia (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/580025f66b8f5b2dabbe4291/t/5c10e3192b6a285b171a3840/1544610599952/HRLC_protest_report_Dec2018.pdf), the Human Rights Law Centre highlights both the magnitude of protesting as a means to be heard and the importance of tolerance in respecting laws around conduct.
To protest – that is, the ability to speak out publicly, to draw attention to a cause, to agitate for change – it says is a fundamental component of democracy.
Indeed, the freedom to assemble and protest allows Australians to express their views on issues significant to them and to press for legal and social change.
Australia has a proud history of protests leading to significant change, including the apology to the Stolen Generations, and the advancement of LGBTIQ rights.
As such, now more than ever, attending a protest stands as a way for people to have their voices heard and participate in issues of concern.
In Australia, people have a right to choose how they protest. Nonetheless, while the meaningful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and freedom of association is at each person’s discretion, in some circumstances, the government or law enforcement is able to place restrictions on how a protest can be held. This usually occurs through prohibiting activities of a certain manner, timing or location.
Across the nation, a number of laws regulate general conduct for public purposes, and so may impact on a chosen method of protest.
For example, the way a person may choose to protest should be in respect of laws such as those of trespass on private land, offences relating to obstruction of traffic, laws on obscenity and late-night noise regulations.
Other restrictions may also apply specifically to protest activity, such as police determining an alternate route of a protest march.
Accordingly, protecting protest in Australia relies upon a balancing act.
On the one hand, it is important to acknowledge a protest often relies on being out of the ordinary – that is, it is disruptive to routine, designed to capture public attention and offers prompt consideration of the protesters’ message.
As part of a democratic society, the inconvenience that this may potentially cause needs to be tolerated to some extent.
On the other side, there also needs to be tolerance by protesters in abiding by regulations and laws that may apply to public conduct or gatherings.
For this reason, it’s important for states to take active steps to ensure these laws are respected. This includes having effective regulations and policies in place, as well as continuing to educate and train the public about protests.
The Use of Force by Authorities During Protests
People participating in protests have a right to be safe and free from violence.
Accordingly, police may only use force in protest situations when strictly necessary and only to the extent required for the performance of their duty in enforcing the law – as the aforementioned case highlights.
Force can include actions such as physical contact with protesters, arrest, dispersal, and move-on orders.
The Law on Obstructing Traffic in NSW
In NSW, it is illegal for a person, without reasonable excuse, to cause an obstruction to traffic.
The law on obstructing traffic is contained in section 6 Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW) (https://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/#/view/act/1988/25/part2/div1/sec6) which prohibits any person, without reasonable excuse, to wilfully prevent the free passage of a person or vehicle or vessel in a public place.
This offence carries a penalty of up to $440 in court.
A criminal conviction will result if the Magistrate in court imposes a conviction with the fine.
However, a conviction can only be avoided if the Magistrate imposes a penalty without a conviction against your name under Conditional Release Order without conviction (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/criminal-law/penalties/nsw/conditional-release-order/).
To increase your chances at getting a non-conviction penalty even after pleading guilty to this offence, it is critical to receive the advice of an experienced traffic lawyer.
If representing yourself in court for a charge you intend on pleading guilty to (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/criminal-law/representing-yourself-in-court/), you should consider preparing:
- An apology letter for court (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/how-to-write-an-apology-letter-for-court-in-criminal-or-traffic-offences/); and
- Selected good character letters for court (https://www.criminaldefencelawyers.com.au/traffic-law/good-character-reference-guide/driving-offences/).