Gang patch bill 'hinders freedom of expression'

PALOMA MIGONE
Last updated 05:00 08/11/2012
Gang patches generic
BADGE OF COMMITMENT: Some of the patches seen on the back of New Zealand gang members.

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A bill aimed at banning gang patches from government and local government buildings denies people the right to express themselves freely, the Law Society says.

However, the Police Association said the move would show gangs that intimidation would not be tolerated.

Parliament's law and order committee yesterday heard the first submissions on National MP Todd McClay's Prohibition of Gang Insignia in Government Premises Bill.

Mr McClay told the committee he drafted the legislation to "reduce the intimidation" of gangs who "collectively poison our children by manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, who rob or rape and cause misery".

The bill was a message to gangs that their abuse was not acceptable, he said.

However, Robert Hesketh, from the Law Society's human rights and privacy committee, said the bill would hinder people's right of expression.

The definition of gang insignia and display could capture groups that had no sinister purpose, he said.

"It's probably without doubt that wearing or otherwise displaying insignia, and that includes gang insignia . . . communicates membership and commitment to a group whether that is a gang or otherwise.

"It's an illustration of the right of freedom of expression. One may not agree with what another person expresses, but certainly the right to have and convey that expression is guaranteed by our Bill of Rights Act."

Mr Hesketh said the bill would give the police minister powers to criminalise groups by adding them to a list of known gangs without further debate in Parliament.

"The recommendation first is that the bill not go beyond the committee stage, but if it does, there ought to be some amendments."

Mr Hesketh said there was already legislation in place that addressed Mr McClay's concerns, including laws against trespassing and unlawful assembly.

Mr McClay told the committee thatcurrent laws often left it to people in the community to stand up to gangs.

He said the bill was a warning to gangs to not wear patches in government buildings, and members would know they had broken the law if they did.

"It will also offer police a tool to fight organised crime," he said.

Police Association president Greg O'Connor, who supports the bill, told the committee the presence of gangs in communities was "very real".

"This bill, while it's no panacea, it needs to be part of a whole suite of other legislation," he said.

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"An arrest of something relatively minor like this would probably only result in a fine, but it could also result in the loss of the patch and that patch is an extremely important part of that gang's identity.

"It's all about the patch. People die for disrespecting the patch, so don't underrate that."

Mr O'Connor said the bill was a "small, but effective" way to show gangs their intimidation would not be tolerated.

- Fairfax Media

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