Protest restrictions outside abortion clinics raise free speech concerns


In July, Victoria's new Safe Access Zone law came into effect. The law, which had been passed by the Victorian Legislative Council in 2015 prevents protesters from harassing people within 150 metres of abortion clinics. Similar measures were also passed in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and have been proposed in New South Wales. These laws typically prohibit the harassment of, and interference with, people accessing reproductive health services. They also ban the recording of a person entering a clinic without their consent, as well as any engagement or communication regarding reproductive health services within the exclusion zone. The violation of these laws can carry jail sentences of up to 12 months.

While this legislation has been applauded by human rights and women's rights advocacy groups as a step forward in combatting violence against women, it has also raised a question that is familiar to human rights discourse: should limitations be placed on the freedom of expression to protect the rights of others? Anti-abortion protesters who have gathered outside abortion clinics for years and are now banned from demonstrating in their surroundings argue that they have never been confrontational, that their vigils have always been peaceful and therefore their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are being violated. However, health workers in abortion clinics have acknowledged a number of cases in which women seeking abortions have ended up harming themselves or even attempting suicide as a result of harassment from evangelical protesters.

In early June, an anti-abortion demonstrator was fined for the second time for breaching the protest-free zone around Canberra's abortion clinic. Kerry Mellor had received his first fine in April for breaching the zone about a month after the laws banning protest in those sites were passed. According to Mr. Mellor, when he and other fellow protesters reached the clinic in the early morning, six police officers were already there. As the group dispersed, he chose to remain in place and took out his rosary, made a sign of the cross, and stood 'in prayer'. When asked to move, he claimed that his religious freedoms were being infringed upon, and argued that praying did not amount to either protest or prohibited behaviour under the exclusion zone laws. He said he intended to challenge the fine in court.

In defence of the exclusion zones, ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher stated:

'I think the issue is not about whether people are allowed to gather and pray, or to practice their faith, it's about the proximity to people accessing a legal health service. [...] I have certainly been lobbied over many years about some of the distress that some of those peaceful protests have caused to women and to people supporting those women to access a legal health service in the ACT.'

Violations of the freedom of expression were also denounced by aid workers in Australian migrant detention centers set up in remote island nations. According to Viktoria Vibhakar, a former aid worker for Save The Children Australia who worked in the Nauru detention center in 2013-2014, human rights abuses in the camp were serious but largely ignored. Mr. Vibhakar stated:

'One of the first things I got, which was the most striking, was a deed of confidentiality, which was a couple pages and it basically said, you cannot say anything about what goes on in this facility and if you do, you are liable for two years in jail for each disclosure.'