Before the High Court: Politics, Police and Proportionality - An Opportunity to Explore the Large Test: Coleman v Power
On 26 March 2000, Patrick Coleman stood in the Townsville Mall and handed out leaflets with the following printed on them: ‘Get to know your local corrupt type coppers’, identifying Constable Brendan Power as one of the ‘slimy lying bastards’ the subject of Coleman’s attention. A number of police officers, including Constable Power, attended the scene and, following a struggle, Coleman was placed in a police vehicle. He was charged with distributing material with insulting words contrary to s7(1)(d)1 of the Vagrants Gaming and Other Offences Act 1931 (Qld) (hereinafter Vagrants Act), using insulting words contrary to s7A(1)(c)2 of the same Act, obstructing police, serious assault against police and wilful damage. At trial, Coleman was found guilty of all the charges except that of wilful damage. On 15 November 2002, Coleman was granted special leave to appeal to the High Court. Coleman argues that the legislation forming the basis of the ‘insulting words’ charges is invalid and that therefore all the charges against him fall away. Coleman asserts invalidity by claiming that the two relevant sections of the Vagrants Act infringe the implied constitutional freedom of political communication by going ‘far beyond any legitimate aim [of the Act] … far beyond protecting the public integrity of the police force’. Further, that his purported arrest was unlawful, based on charges which were invalid, that they therefore constituted unlawful assault upon him, giving rise to a right of self-defence against the police officers which he exercised and which formed the factual basis of the charges of obstructing and assaulting police. The Coleman v Power appeal presents the High Court with an opportunity to further consider the scope of the implied constitutional freedom of political communication, the test to determine legislative invalidity of regulation that inhibits that freedom and possibly examine issues such as police powers of arrest. This is Coleman’s second attempt at raising the issue of the constitutional freedom in the High Court. His individual position aside, the rest of the Australian community should watch with interest to see how the Court interprets and applies the freedom. Will the Court give the freedom a strong role in restricting the legislative power of the state, placing great weight on citizens’ need and desire to protest? Or will it confine the freedom’s operation to a limited sphere?
This article was originally published as Arcioni, E, Before the High Court: Politics, Police and Proportionality - An Opportunity to Explore the Large Test: Coleman v Power, Sydney Law Review, 25(3), 2003, 379-390. Original journal available here.