Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Youth Day laws 'undermine basic rights'

The New South Wales Bar Association says new regulations for World Youth Day undermine basic rights and are an affront to freedom of speech.

Under the new regulations, people who refuse to stop engaging in conduct that causes annoyance or inconvenience to pilgrims can be arrested and fined up to $5,500.

The same provision did not apply during last year's APEC Summit in Sydney.

The association says the terms are too vague and the penalties are excessive.

It says if existing laws are considered sufficient to regulate conduct at events like the Mardi Gras or the Rugby World Cup, they should be good enough to cover World Youth Day.

The Bar Association has also accused the Government of avoiding public scrutiny by creating a criminal offence by regulation, rather than making it an Act of Parliament.

It says the NSW Government is trying to restrict freedom of speech.

Association president Anna Katzmann SC says the laws are ridiculous because any person displaying opposition to the event could be affected.

"If I were to wear a t-shirt proclaiming that World Youth Day is a waste of public money in a World Youth Day-declared area, and I refuse to remove it when an officer, an authorised officer of the Rural Fire Service asks me to do so, then I'm potentially committing a criminal offence," she said.

The Greens say the powers aim to shut down protests and provide a sanitised view of Sydney.

Greens MP Lee Rhiannon says the definition of causing annoyance is open to interpretation and the subsequent penalties are excessive.

"If somebody exposes themself to a World Youth Day participant they face a fine of $1,100, but if they wear an anti-Catholic t-shirt, the fine could be $5,500," she said.

But Deputy Police Commissioner Dave Owens says officers will act reasonably in determining what is offensive.

"Police officers do it every day of the week," he said.

"As I've said, they have a discretion. We're not the fashion police, we're not kill-joys."

World Youth Day spokesman Father Mark Podesta rejected suggestions the Catholic Church requested the special powers.

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