18 October 2017

Protests

In Brown & Anor v The State of Tasmania [2017] HCA 43 the High Court has held invalid certain provisions of the Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Act 2014 (Tas) in relation to the implied freedom of political communication.

Provisions of the Act prohibit "protesters" – persons engaging in conduct in furtherance of, or for the purposes of promoting awareness of or support for, "an opinion, or belief, in respect of a political, environmental, social, cultural or economic issue" – from engaging in certain conduct on "business premises" or "business access areas". "Business premises" relevantly comprises "forestry land", which includes land on which "forest operations" are being carried out. "Business access area" is defined as so much of an area of land, outside business premises, as is reasonably necessary to enable access to an entrance to, or to an exit from, business premises. Police officers may direct any person to leave or stay away from "business premises" or "business access areas" in certain circumstances under pain of arrest or criminal penalty.

The plaintiffs, notably former Greens Senator Bob Brown were present in the Lapoinya Forest in North West Tasmania when forest operations were being conducted there. They were arrested and charged with offences under the Act in relation to their conduct in opposing the logging of part of that forest. (The charges against each plaintiff were not later pursued.)

It was not disputed that, but for directions made under the Act, and to the extent permitted by other laws, the plaintiffs would have gone back to the Forest for the purpose of raising public awareness of logging in that forest.

In the High Court, the plaintiffs challenged the validity of provisions of the Act on the basis that the Constitution protects freedom of political communication and that those provisions impermissibly burden that freedom.

 A majority of the High Court has today held that the impugned provisions of the Act in respect of forestry land and business access areas relating to forestry land effectively burdened the implied freedom of political communication.

A majority of the Court held that the Act pursued the legitimate purpose of protecting businesses and their operations by ensuring that protesters do not prevent, hinder or obstruct the carrying out of business activities. The Court however held that the burden imposed by the impugned provisions on the implied freedom of political communication was impermissible. The provisions were not reasonably appropriate and adapted, or proportionate, to the pursuit of that purpose in a manner compatible with the maintenance of the system of representative and responsible government that the Constitution requires.

A majority of the Court therefore declared that the impugned provisions were invalid in their operation in respect of forestry land and related business access areas.