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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967.

Erosion of civil rights

Erosion of civil rights

Civil Liberties in New Zealand are rapidly becoming a luxury only the wealthy will be able to afford. The costs incurred by Messrs. Wainwright and Butler following the "Wreath laying" incident earlier this year, when they successfully appealed to the Supreme Court on the charge of obstructing a policeman in the course of his duty, illustrate most clearly the advantages of being found guilty.

However, the more "offenders" who are prepared to be found guilty, the more rapid will be the erosion of individual rights in this country. Each decision tends to restrict civil liberties one step further. The precedent being built up is becoming so solid not even a liberal magistrate or judge will be able to reverse the trend.

It is interesting that this erosion should be most rapid under a National Government when the National Party has professed individual liberty to be an integral part of its philosophy. Object seven of the National Party Constitution is: "To encourage the development of individual effort and initiative and to take such steps as will grant the greatest possible measure of personal freedom." (Emphasis ours, Ed,)

It is clear New Zealand must decide just how much personal freedom is to be allowed. Disorderly behaviour is a term which seems applicable to any sort of behaviour which other people strongly object to. Consequently Messrs. Wainwright and Butler behaved in a disorderly manner on Anzac Day because they laid a wreath which bore an inscription which was offensive to many people at the time.

The only justifiable limitations on individual liberty are those which prevent a person or persons from doing something which would be clearly to the detriment of someone else. In other words, New Zealanders should have the right to say, print or do anything as long as it will not adversely affect anyone.

In this field New Zealand could do well to follow the lead given by the United States. Over 40 years ago Negro civil rights demonstrators were arrested for disturbing the peace should their demonstrations manage to stir angry racist whites into retaliation.

Since then the Supreme Court has held that the civil rights demonstrators, as long as they remain within the law, shall be protected by police from the lunatic fringe. The right to protest and distribute literature is clearly established and guaranteed by the law.

While New Zealanders have the right to demonstrate at the moment, this right can be swept aside by the Government as was done during the 1951 Water Front Strike, or eroded away by precedent set in the law courts. It is possible if a section of the public decided it was offended by Vietnam demonstrators and attacked them, the demonstrator might not find himself in the right.

Although the distinction between actions which do and do not affect others can be difficult it is clear the erosion of civil liberties must be stopped. As a first step the disorderly behaviour offence could be clarified. At the moment it is that which right thinking people don't do.

This vague "right thinking" concept should be replaced with something a little meaningful. It is time the Council for Civil liberties in conjunction with all pressure groups interested in civil liberties began pressing for laws which clearly define that behaviour which will lead to prosecution.