The High Court has missed a major opportunity to strengthen and uphold the rights to free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press in the case of Wotton v Queensland. Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal man convicted of offences associated with the Palm Island riots that followed the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in police custody, was today unsuccessful in challenging the terms of his parole. Those terms include conditions under his parole order that he “not attend public meetings onPalm Island without the prior approval of the corrective services officer” and that he “be prohibited from speaking to and having any interaction whatsoever with the media”. He was also unsuccessful in challenging the constitutional validity of section 132(1) of the Queensland Corrective Services Act which makes it a criminal offence for a journalist to interview or obtain a written or recorded statement from a prisoner, including a person on parole in the community, without the written approval of correctional authorities.
According to Phil Lynch of the Human Rights Law Centre, which supported the case, “The High Court has missed a major opportunity to uphold the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. It has also failed to uphold the freedom of the press.”
According to the majority in the High Court, the provisions of the Corrective Services Act are reasonable and appropriate to ensure “community safety and crime prevention”.
The Human Rights Law Centre disagrees. “Substantial evidence demonstrates that community safety and crime prevention are best served through the social reintegration of parolees and measures which promote their full participation and engagement in civil, political and community life,” said Mr Lynch.
Mr Lynch added that, “Provisions which make it a criminal offence for journalists to speak to parolees are an unacceptable limitation on the right to free speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech and a free press are fundamental to Australia’s representative democracy. It is disappointing that the High Court has not taken the opportunity to affirm this as a principle of constitutional law.”
Mr Wotton was represented on a pro bono basis by Ron Merkel QC, Kristen Walker and Alistair Pound of Counsel, together with lawyers Levitt Robinson and Allens Arthur Robinson. The Human Rights Law Centre also assisted with the case.