Proposed new contempt law threatens freedom of speech

In a truly free society, we should be free to express our opinions on social media or in the media. No one should be protected from our opinions. If I disagree with an ideology like Islam I should be free to mock it and criticise it. I should be free to mock and criticise our politicians and even our prime minister. I certainly should be free to mock and criticise our judges. No one should be protected from other people’s opinions or derision as free speech includes the right to offend and to hurt another person’s feelings.

National party MP Chris Finlayson, however, wants to protect our judges’ feelings by creating a new contempt law that will punish people for saying things about judges on social media.

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A proposed new law of contempt, setting boundaries for what can and can’t be said by the media, particularly social media, about defendants, trials and judges is going to be examined by Parliament.

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What a Pandora’s box that would open. Do we really want to start criminalising people for being nasty on Twitter? Let’s face it, it is practically compulsory to be a jerk on Twitter and it is a haven for trolls.

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One of the most controversial parts of the bill is likely to be penalties for making untrue allegations against judges, which will attract a fine of up to $50,000 or up to two years imprisonment.

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Imagine how many hurt and angry people there will be out there who lost a court case and who will be venting on Twitter or Facebook. If you just lost custody of your daughter to your abusive ex-partner should you really be imprisoned for making unfounded allegations against the judge who made that decision? Equally, if your Mum was brutally murdered by someone and he gets a light sentence should we really be charging a person for calling the judge who made the decision rude names on Twitter?

Sometimes the decisions judges make seem incomprehensible to the people whose lives are being destroyed financially or emotionally by the court system. Should we really be policing them for words said in anger to protect a judge’s feelings?

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Some abuse of judges was calculated to intimidate judges individually or collectively, said the bill’s sponsor, former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

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The law already covers incitement so there is no need for a new law. Inciting harm on a judge should not be considered worse than inciting harm on anyone else. Why should there be a special law just to protect them?

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“Such abuse is capable of undermining the rule of law. Judicial independence and impartiality is at the heart of the rule of law.”

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Then charge these people for threatening the judges. That kind of unacceptable behaviour is already illegal. National MP Chris Finlayson has said that “fair criticism is different from abuse‘ but this is really dangerous territory as who gets to decide whether or not the criticism is either fair or abuse. Why does criticism have to be fair? If a judge follows the law and decides against me I doubt that I will feel that his or her decision is fair and I am likely to want to say mean words and complain about the decision. Surely that should not turn me into a criminal?

Already we have people accused of racism and Islamophobia on social media for stating facts without emotions. I cannot be the only one who wonders if even factual criticism of judges will be treated fairly. The bill proposes that publishing untrue accusations against a judge will be punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and a $50,000 fine for individuals and $100,000 for organisations. 

It looks like the old nursery rhyme is about to change.

Sticks and stones can break your bones but words will cost you $50,000 and land you in prison for two years.

 


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