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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

High Court to rule on parolee media ban

High Court to rule on parolee media ban

Mark Dodd
From: The Australian
August 02, 2011 11:47AM

A Queensland law might be ruled unconstitutional after it was used to ban a parolee from speaking to the media.

THE High Court has been asked to rule on whether a Queensland law might be unconstitutional after it was used to ban an Aboriginal activist from speaking to the media about the death on Palm Island of Cameron Doomadgee because the activist was on parole from prison.

The two-day hearing starting today will test the constitutional rights of paroled prisoners and could have significant implications for journalists and freedom of speech.

At the heart of the matter will be a determination by the High Court on whether a state - Queensland - can restrict a paroled prisoner's right to speak freely on political matters.

The case involves Aboriginal activist Lex Wotton, sentenced to six years' prison in 2008 for rioting over the Cameron Doomadgee's death.

Mr Wotton was released on parole in July 2010 after serving 20 months and is contesting three parole conditions.

They are bans on any contact with the media, attending public meetings or receiving payment for media work.

Mr Wotton's lawyer, Stewart Levitt, told The Australian yesterday, the parole conditions appeared unconstitutional.

"What is most objectionable is that he is a political figure in the indigenous community and it effectively stifles him from being able to talk about prison conditions and issues that affect Aboriginal people in Australia," Mr Levitt said.

"The idea that you need to get permission from the government before you can criticise the government is outrageous."

Mr Wotton's legal team, led by former Federal Court Justice Ron Merkel QC, will assert that the parole conditions represent a "burden on the constitutional guarantee of free communications within the Commonwealth."

The Liberal-governed states of New South Wales and Victoria are supporting Queensland in the High Court case.

"They are conservative governments and the Queensland government is a conservative government," said Mr Levitt. He said the Queensland government was controlled by that state's police association.

But the case went beyond the matter of prisoner's rights, he said.

"Once you start to control the freedom to communicate - who knows where it stops.

"Under some of the new anti-terrorism legislation they (state and federal governments) are making it much easier to classify someone as being a prisoner.

"And of course, you are still considered to be a prisoner even when you are on parole."

As a parolee Mr Wotton has the right to vote but is unable to express an opinion.

"The very fact I have to tell journalists 'don't photograph him smiling' or 'don't ask him any questions' just goes to show how foreign this concept is to liberty and democracy," Mr Levitt said.

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