Two anti-abortion activists say free speech is dead in the wake of a High Court ruling upholding laws in Victoria and Tasmania to prohibit protests near clinics.
- Kathleen Clubb and Graham Preston say they were denied a right to freedom of political communication
- Ms Clubb was convicted for trying to hand out a pamphlet outside a Melbourne clinic
- Mr Preston faced charges for protesting within the 150m exclusion area in Hobart
- High Court rules the laws about no protest zones serve a purpose
Two people, prosecuted in Victoria and Tasmania, told the High Court they had been denied their right to freedom of political communication.
But today the High Court dismissed the appeal, saying the laws served a legitimate purpose.
The case involved Kathleen Clubb, who was convicted after trying to hand a pamphlet to a couple outside an east Melbourne clinic in 2016 and Graham Preston, who faced three charges for his protests in Hobart in 2014 and 2015.
Mr Preston was found to have been within the no protest zone, carrying placards reading “Every child has the right to life” and “Everyone has the right to life”.
The pair both argued the laws preventing them from protesting outside clinics were unconstitutional.
But the Commonwealth told the court the case did not even get to first base, because the protestors did not have a political message.
All states and the Northern Territory also intervened in the case, pointing out that even if the implied freedom had been affected, it was eclipsed by the necessity to protect women seeking a termination.
Challenge on free speech grounds ‘doomed’ to fail
Three of the judges, including Chief Justice Susan Kieffel, said the purpose of the law outweighed any freedom of speech concerns.
“The burden on political communication imposed by the protest prohibition is slight,” Chief Justice Kieffel said.
“To the extent that it does affect political communication, it does so only within access zones and without discriminating between sources of protest.”
But four of the judges offered different reasons for their decision, particularly in relation to Ms Clubb’s case.
The court noted she admitted she was not handing out political material, and her challenge was more of an academic exercise to suggest the laws were impeding her freedom of speech.
That led Justice Stephen Gageler to remark that the challenge to her conviction was “doomed” to fail.
‘Now free speech has been killed as well’
Outside court Ms Clubb said the High Court had made a “terrible decision”.
“It’s not enough that so many babies have been killed, but now free speech has been killed as well,” she said.
Mr Preston labelled it a “very sad day of all of Australia”.
“The suppression of freedom of speech hurts everybody and I think it’s a great loss for us all,” he said.
“On the day I was arrested in Tasmania I was holding a sign that said ‘everyone has a right to life’.
“So now it is a criminal offence to promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been signed by Australia.
“I was fined $3,000 in Tasmania for doing just that.”
Mr Preston denied his protests were moral not political.
“How do you differentiate?” he said.
“This is a political issue because there are laws about it … this is just a much a political issue as anything else.”
He said “every abortion took the life of a human child”.
“To speak up on their behalf, no matter how peacefully, no matter how calmly, you can be locked up for a year in jail. That ought to scare everybody of the abuse of our freedom of speech in this country,” he said.
‘Safe zones are here to stay’: Human Rights Law Centre
In a statement, the Human Rights Law Centre welcomed the High Court’s decision, saying it acknowledged “the importance of privacy, safety and equality in access to healthcare”.
“With today’s decision, women in Victoria and Tasmania never again need to worry about being forced to run a gauntlet of abuse to access abortion care,” senior lawyer Adrianne Walters said.
“Safe access zones are here to stay.”
Dr Susie Allanson, who had worked as a clinical psychologist at the Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic for 26 years, said the decision was a win for women and for staff working in abortion clinics.
“Since the safe zones came into effect, women and staff are no longer a target when they walk up to the clinic, and women no longer carry the heavy burden of being publicly attacked for seeking medical care,” she said.
“This is a great result that enshrines respect for women’s choices.”
Multiple states have laws banning protestors within 150m
Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, the ACT and the NT all have similar laws banning protests within 150 metres of clinics.
New Queensland laws decriminalising abortion also set up exclusion zones.
But the issue was still being worked out in Western Australia and South Australia with parliamentary bills at various stages.
Some in the case compared the laws of the two affected states, saying the Tasmanian legislation was more thorough because it prohibited protests that could be seen or heard by within the exclusion zone.
Victoria’s law only prohibits activities likely to cause distress and anxiety to people seeking an abortion.
The High Court ruling means prosecutions against both Ms Clubb and Mr Preston will stand.
Topics: courts-and-trials, abortion, health, womens-health, women, australia, canberra-2600, vic, tas, hobart-7000, melbourne-3000, act
Lawn Mowing Service