Introduction: Community activism

 

Community activism is subject to ordinary legal controls as well as the threat of legal action used to silence dissenting voices. Staying legal is part of a good campaign strategy.

Mounting an effective community campaign requires significant planning and careful consideration of many organisational, political and legal issues.

Legal issues permeate the many and varied aspects of campaigning, and are not limited to your rights when attending a demonstration. Nor do they simply affect “the usual suspects” who seem to capture the headlines during high-profile protests.

Whether you are expressing concern over freeways, advocating for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, protesting against war or globalisation, or seeking to protect your local park or school, legal issues need to be considered.

This chapter is intended as a basic overview of the legal issues confronted by activists engaged in community campaigning.

Parts of this chapter are drawn from the Activist Rights website (www.activistrights.org.au) published by Fitzroy Legal Service. This website is a comprehensive source of legal information. The site also contains a study of the broader contextual issues to consider when mounting an effective community campaign.

Speaking out

Campaigning often involves voicing concerns in the public arena. However, voicing issues publicly can invite legal action aimed at silencing protest. People who have “published” all types of material – books, reports, leaflets, bumper stickers, posters, who have written letters to their local paper, or have made public statements – have received threats of legal action and some have been sued for civil conspiracy and defamation. For information about the law of defamation, including defences and remedies, see Defamation and your rights.

Activists who choose to assert their rights in the courts also risk incurring expensive legal costs. In some public interest cases, a cap on costs has been negotiated in the early stages of litigation.