Abortion “buffer zones”, free speech and religious freedom

Governments around Australia are showing a sudden enthusiasm for introducing restricted “zones” around clinics offering abortions, in order to prevent protestors from operating in those areas. Tasmania has introduced such legislation, in the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013 (Tas), s 9. An “access zone” under that law is 150 metres around a clinic, and within that area “prohibited behaviour” is defined as follows:

(a) in relation to a person, besetting, harassing, intimidating, interfering with, threatening, hindering, obstructing or impeding that person; or

(b) a protest in relation to terminations that is able to be seen or heard by a person accessing, or attempting to access, premises at which terminations are provided; or

(c) footpath interference in relation to terminations; or

(d) intentionally recording, by any means, a person accessing or attempting to access premises at which terminations are provided without that person’s consent; or

(e) any other prescribed behaviour.

This is a very wide prohibition, covering not only violent or abusive behaviour (which of course would already be prohibited by the general law), but also making it unlawful to simply quietly hand out leaflets in a “protest” which can be said to be “in relation to” terminations, or indeed to wear a “protesting” T-shirt, however mild and inoffensive, while standing on the other side of the road from a clinic.

Similar legislation has also recently been enacted in the ACT, with the passage on 29 October 2015 through the Legislative Assembly of the Health (Patient Privacy) Amendment Act 2015 (ACT) (“HPPA”), although that legislation will apparently not commence for 6 months. In that case the “protected area” set out in s 86 of the amended Health Act 1993 is defined under s 86(2)(a) as 50 metres, which is at least somewhat more reasonable than the broad Tasmanian legislation. Under the HPPA amendments, however, the “prohibited behaviour” is even more extensively defined than in Tasmania:

prohibited behaviour, in a protected area around an approved medical facility, means any of the following:

(a) the harassment, hindering, intimidation, interference with, threatening or obstruction of a person, including by the capturing of visual data of the person, in the protected period that is intended to stop the person from—

(i)  entering the approved medical facility; or

(ii)  having or providing an abortion in the approved medical facility;

(b) an act that—

(i) can be seen or heard by anyone in the protected period; and

(ii) is intended to stop a person from—

(A) entering the approved medical facility; or

(B) having or providing an abortion in the approved medical facility; or

(c) a protest, by any means, in the protected period in relation to the provision of abortions in the approved medical facility.

Again, no violence or harassment in any verbal or physical sense need occur; anything that can be called a “protest”, or any “act” which is intended to discourage a person from having an abortion, is made unlawful.

Similar proposals have been mooted, though not yet enacted, in Victoria: see “Victoria to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics“, SBS, 2 Sept 2015.

Of course the arguments in favour of protecting women who are visiting clinics to have an abortion, from undue harassment, are very powerful. Any such procedure is already incredibly stressful. If this were any other medical procedure, there would be very little reason to allow protests designed to discourage patients from attending, to take place outside medical offices . Protests could, of course, take place outside Parliament House (as proponents of these laws have urged.) This would all be persuasive if abortion were merely, as a recent editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia put it, just like “other medical procedures”. (See De Costa & Douglas, “Abortion Law in Australia: it’s time for national consistency and decriminalisation” (2 Nov 2015) 203/9 MJA 349-350, at 350).

But abortion is, with respect to those who think otherwise, not just another medical procedure. Many religious believers take the view that a human being, a person in the image of God, is present in the womb from the moment of conception. But agree with that view or not, there seems no doubt that, on purely objective biological grounds, what is present in the womb of a pregnant woman is a human life. A termination at the very least prevents that human life flourishing into a human being. However the operation is described, it is not “just another medical procedure”.

Those who wish to mount a quiet prayer vigil, or to offer counselling, outside abortion clinics do not do so, then, simply to “protest” the fact of the operation taking place, or because they believe the procedure is wrong and ought not to be carried out in the vast bulk of cases. They do so because they believe these things, but also because they believe that a human life is at stake in each procedure, and should be preserved.

Not all believers, even those who share the view that a full person is present from conception, take the view that vigils or “protests” outside abortion clinics are a wise or loving way to further the aim of stopping abortions. But some do. In general, our law places a strong value on the right of people to make public statements about their beliefs, where they are not directly attacking or threatening others. In addition, however, the law of Australia, and international law, protects religious freedom, and arguably not only the free speech rights of protestors, but also in many cases their religious freedom rights, are under threat from, or being impaired by, the “exclusion zone” laws.

I recently posted a guest blog by Professor Michael Quinlan on some of these issues, which summarised the approach in a recent US Supreme Court decision, McCullen et al v Coakley, Attorney General of Massachusetts et al 573 US (2014), which overturned as invalid a law forbidding protests within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. The US Supreme Court, of course, has a long history of reading the First Amendment “free speech” clause of the US Bill of Rights very broadly. I want to comment briefly here on how the laws mentioned above may be treated if challenged under Australian law.

Freedom of speech arguments

In light of the US decision, and others like it, the most obvious challenge to an Australian “protest-free zone” law would be under free speech principles. In this country, though, we do not have an explicit Constitutional free speech right. (It should be noted that in Victoria, where such a “protest-free zone” is now being proposed, there is a State-based “Charter of Rights” in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic), section 15 of which protects “freedom of expression”. But the precise operation of this provision is still in some doubt- see, for example, the decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court in Kerrison v Melbourne City Council [2014] FCAFC 130 (3 October 2014)- and since the broader Federal right is applicable across the whole of Australia, that is what will be considered here. It is ironical, however, that two of the three jurisdictions which have implemented or indicated an intention to implement these “exclusion zones”, Victoria and the ACT, are the two jurisdictions in Australia which contain explicit human rights protection, including protection of freedom of expression.)

(In an earlier version of this blog post I omitted to mention that s 48 of the Victorian Charter explicitly says that nothing in the Charter affects “any law applicable to abortion”. While it seems likely that the original purpose of this provision was to avoid the Charter being used to make arguments about the “right to life” of an unborn child, it is possible that a “protest free zone” law relating to abortion clinics may be regarded as “applicable to abortion” and hence immune from challenge under the Charter. But this would not prevent the arguments made here about freedom of speech under Commonwealth law from being applicable. Thanks to Professor Quinlan for bringing this to my attention.)

While we do not have explicit Federal free speech protection in Australia, then, we do have an “implied freedom of political communication” which was discerned to be an implication of the Constitution by the High Court in a series of decisions culminating in Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation [1997] HCA 25;  (1997) 189 CLR 520. The most recent decision on this implied freedom is McCloy v New South Wales [2015] HCA 34 (7 October 2015), where a majority of the Court (French CJ, Kiefel, Bell and Keane JJ) spelled out the currently authoritative approach to dealing with these issues, in the following important (though lengthy) quote:

[2] …[T]he question whether an impugned law infringes the freedom requires application of the following propositions derived from previous decisions of this Court and particularly Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation[1] and Coleman v Power[2]:

A. The freedom under the Australian Constitution is a qualified limitation on legislative power implied in order to ensure that the people of the Commonwealth may “exercise a free and informed choice as electors.”[3] It is not an absolute freedom. It may be subject to legislative restrictions serving a legitimate purpose compatible with the system of representative government for which the Constitution provides, where the extent of the burden can be justified as suitable, necessary and adequate, having regard to the purpose of those restrictions.

B. The question whether a law exceeds the implied limitation depends upon the answers to the following questions, reflecting those propounded in Lange as modified in Coleman v Power:

(1) Does the law effectively burden the freedom in its terms, operation or effect?

If “no”, then the law does not exceed the implied limitation and the enquiry as to validity ends.

(2) If “yes” to question 1, are the purpose of the law and the means adopted to achieve that purpose legitimate, in the sense that they are compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative government[4]? This question reflects what is referred to in these reasons as “compatibility testing”.

The answer to that question will be in the affirmative if the purpose of the law and the means adopted are identified and are compatible with the constitutionally prescribed system in the sense that they do not adversely impinge upon the functioning of the system of representative government.

If the answer to question 2 is “no”, then the law exceeds the implied limitation and the enquiry as to validity ends.

(3) If “yes” to question 2, is the law reasonably appropriate and adapted to advance that legitimate object[5]? This question involves what is referred to in these reasons as “proportionality testing” to determine whether the restriction which the provision imposes on the freedom is justified.

The proportionality test involves consideration of the extent of the burden effected by the impugned provision on the freedom. There are three stages to the test – these are the enquiries as to whether the law is justified as suitable, necessary and adequate in its balance in the following senses:

suitable — as having a rational connection to the purpose of the provision[6];

necessary — in the sense that there is no obvious and compelling alternative, reasonably practicable means of achieving the same purpose which has a less restrictive effect on the freedom;

adequate in its balance — a criterion requiring a value judgment, consistently with the limits of the judicial function, describing the balance between the importance of the purpose served by the restrictive measure and the extent of the restriction it imposes on the freedom.

If the measure does not meet these criteria of proportionality testing, then the answer to question 3 will be “no” and the measure will exceed the implied limitation on legislative power.

Clearly there are many decisions ahead which will need to clarify the precise operation of these tests. But we can start by asking the question whether a 150 metre “exclusion zone” around abortion clinics is compatible with this implied limitation on the legislative power of Australian Parliaments (such as the Parliament of Tasmania).

  1. Does the law burden “political speech”? It seems fairly clear that it does. The topic of abortion is certainly a public policy issue of great contention in Australia, and from time to time different political parties have had different views on the issues.
  2. It seems likely that one could say that the purpose of the law is a legitimate one, in the sense that it aims to protect vulnerable citizens (women seeking terminations) from a harm they may suffer (being offended or feeling harassed in exercising a choice to have a termination). Perhaps one might raise a serious question about whether the “means adopted” to achieve this end are compatible with the “ordinary political processes” in Australia- we do not usually forbid public demonstrations because of the content of the material being communicated by the demonstrators. But let us assume for the moment that a 150 metre exclusion zone might just pass the test of a legitimate “means” of achieving an end.
  3. In the “proportionality” test, however, it seems strongly arguable that a wide zone of this sort will fail the test. Yes, the means adopted may be “suitable” in that they will presumably lessen the distress of those seeking terminations. But are the means adopted “necessary” in the sense that there is “no obvious and compelling alternative, reasonably practicable means of achieving the same purpose which has a less restrictive effect on the freedom”? In order to achieve the laudable aim of protecting women from violent and harassing protestors, is it necessary to also prohibit those who may simply stand quietly handing out leaflets or praying? And in particular, is there a proper balance “between the importance of the purpose served by the restrictive measure and the extent of the restriction it imposes on the freedom”? A complete ban on certain speech content is usually regarded as the clearest example of an unjustified interference with free speech. In a previous decision dealing with public preaching, Attorney-General (SA) v Corporation of the City of Adelaide [2013] HCA 3 (27 February 2013), the High Court made it clear that a ban on such activities which was based on the content of what was said (rather than on traffic considerations, for example) would be invalid.

It should be noted in this context, then, that this is not simply a “free speech” case. Many who wish to protest or counsel outside abortion clinics do so on the basis of deeply held religious beliefs.

Freedom of Religion

Arguably this is another feature of the protests being held outside abortion clinics which should inform the decision of a court as to the nature of the “rights” being interfered with. Of course it has to be said that in the States, the restriction on Commonwealth legislation impairing the “free exercise” of religion imposed by s 116 of the Constitution is not binding. But in the ACT, as a Territory not a State, where one “protest zone” law has just been passed, it seems fairly clear that s 116 will be applicable, and may have a serious impact on the validity of such a law. (For discussion of the former doubts that were expressed as to whether s 116 was binding on the Territories, as opposed to the States, see my paper on “Religious Freedom in Australia” at p 8.)

In addition, as noted previously, both Victoria and the ACT have “Charters of Rights”, which include protection for religious freedom. And in Tasmania, the little-known s 46 of that State’s Constitution Act 1934 also provides explicit protection for religious freedom.

All of these religious freedom rights are, of course, subject to balancing with other rights. But at the very least the weight of both free speech rights, and religious freedom rights, especially when combined in a case like this, ought to give Parliaments cause to think very carefully before enacting geographically wide, and substantively broad, limitations on the rights of those citizens who believe they are not only helping pregnant women, but also saving the lives of their children, by polite offers of counselling and assistance outside clinics.

Finally, it is worth noting that this view, that wide “protest free zones” like that in Tasmania are probably constitutionally invalid, is also shared by one of the most recent other academic commentaries on the issue. Eleanor Jones, in “Implementing Protest-Free Zones around Abortion Clinics in Australia” (2014) 36 Sydney Law Review 169-184, expresses clear doubts about the validity of such laws, while apparently supporting their policy. She says:

Protests outside abortion clinics are poised to become the next example of political communication that is objectionable to a majority of Australians, but nonetheless protected from regulation by the freedom of political communication (at 170)…

the prospective constitutionality of the RHATA is uncertain (at 174)…

It is therefore unlikely that the provisions of the RHATA would survive in their entirety (at 182)…

there is little evidence to suggest that these protests are so frequent and unruly that access to abortion clinics is currently being disrupted to the extent that so wide an exclusion zone is necessary. (at 183)

It is true that Jones also suggests that a much narrower exclusion zone might be constitutionally valid (at one point she notes that the US Supreme Court has upheld as legitimate an exclusion zone of 4.5 metres – see p 171 n 16). But even this suggestion is made tentatively. There is real doubt here.

This makes the comments in this editorial from the Medical Journal of Australia, then, very misleading. In that opinion piece, noted previously, the authors, who are aiming to describe the law of Australia on the matter, state very clearly:

Constitutional law scholars generally agree that the Tasmanian provision can withstand any High Court challenge.

Their authority for this proposition? The article by Jones. I trust that the quotes provided above are enough to show that the claim that is made here is, to be frank, quite wrong. Jones casts serious doubts on the validity of the Tasmanian provision. The authors of the MJA piece also mis-state the operation of the test dealing with the implied freedom of political speech, referring to a “two-step” test, whereas the Jones article (written of course prior to McCloy but still valid on this point) notes that it is a “three stage test” (at 174).

Given these errors, it is perhaps not surprising to find others in that article, We are told that access of women to clinics is “often hindered by verbal and sometimes physical harassment”. Yet Jones, as noted above, suggests that this is not really a major problem in Australia. The editorial then asserts that attempts to curtail protests have failed because of the implied rights to freedom of political communication. No evidence is presented that this doctrine has so far been invoked in these cases, but if it had the so-called “solution” to the problem provided by the Tasmanian legislation would be useless, given that the Tasmanian Parliament, like all in Australia, are obliged to recognise this right.

In short, the enthusiasm expressed by the authors of the MJA editorial for the Tasmanian laws (an enthusiasm which, it seems fairly clear, would not be shared by all medical practitioners in Australia) is misplaced. It is to be hoped that Australian Parliaments pay much more careful attention in future to the rights of citizens who are wanting to exercise the freedoms of speech and religion our community regards as vital.

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