Suppressing information. A challenge to free speech?

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Wed, 2006-04-05 00:57

The use of suppression orders in recent New Zealand trials has come in for much debate, not least in two trials involving and alleging gang rape, the latest being the suppression orders from the Louise Nicholas/Clint Rickards (et al) trials just finished, and currently being informally challenged. A commenter here asked for my opinion on the various breaches of the suppression order in the recent rape trial: "PC," said Yalnikim, "I'm looking forward to your thoughts on "free speech versus information suppression." So here they are.

I can sympathise with those handing out leaflets assaying facts about both this case and a previous case -- just part of the information denied to the media by the courts' various orders suppressing media reports of names and of evidence given in the trials. On the face of it, the suppression appears to deny both the right to free speech and the principle that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done.

It doesn't.

There are two very good reasons for the use of suppression orders in trials. Here's the first: As you'll probably recall, there is an important legal principle that protects all of us saying that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty --- and that means innocent of the particular crime for which they are being charged. For the most part, the law still follows this principle -- and so it should. The reason for courts having the power to suppress evidence and trial reports is to protect the innocent until or unless their guilt has been proven.

Which leads to the second very good reason, in some ways a corollary of the first. If you'll recall the 'Propositions on Free Speech' I posted here a few weeks ago (which it might be worth re-reading at this point), one of those important propositions sets out the limits to free speech: "My freedom ends where your nose begins. My free speech ends where your rights begin." The reason for suppression orders is to protect those before the courts whose guilt is being judged, and who are therefore innocent before the law. Your free speech ends where their noses begin.

So in my submission then, even though it's increasingly difficult to put them into effect, suppression orders in trials do provide an important legal protection upholding the rights of the innocent. It's sometimes appropriate to argue about the appropriateness of particular suppression orders, as it's often possible to disgree with particular trial verdicts, but in doing do it's important not to throw out the legal baby with your emotional bathwater.

LINKS: Pack rape four found guilty - Scoop (5 July, 2005)
No more Nicholas fliers - for now - Stuff
Some propositions on free speech - Peter Cresswell

TAGS: Free_Speech, Law, Politics-NZ