A public protest is a means for people to complain in a public way about something they think is wrong and build support to correct it. Protests can take the form of an individual writing a letter to a newspaper – or a march of thousands along city streets. Some protests target specific people or companies, such as consumers’ boycotts of a particular product or service. More often protests are aimed at stopping or reforming public policies and laws and, therefore, are directed at politicians and governments.
Public protest is an important aspect of New Zealand’s participatory democracy. It is a way for people to have their voices heard by politicians and, conversely, for politicians to keep abreast of community concerns. This encourages stable government. While not all public protests achieve their objectives, some have been important in reshaping government policy and in influencing public opinion. For example, the 1975 Māori hīkoi (land march) paved the way for the return of land to Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.
Freedom to burn flag
In 2007 Valerie Morse was arrested for burning a New Zealand flag at an Anzac Day ceremony, in a protest against New Zealand’s military involvement in foreign wars. Morse was charged with offensive behaviour in a public place. She was convicted in the District Court and lost appeals in the High Court and Court of Appeal. But the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, saying that offensive behavior required proof of an intolerable disturbance of public order. This was not proven in Morse’s case and her freedom-of-expression rights should have prevailed.
Right to protest
The right to public protest is guaranteed under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This gives every New Zealander the right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. These freedoms are limited by the need to protect other people’s rights and maintain national security, public order and health, and morality. Such limits are not always clear. Sometimes police have shut down public protests, only for the courts to find their intervention has breached protesters’ rights.
Places of protest
Most protests occur in towns and cities, where there is more chance to shape events and be heard. Public spaces – such as squares, parks and streets – are used for protest rallies and marches. Some spaces assume great importance as sites of protest. Cathedral Square in Christchurch has hosted public protests since the 1880s; Wellington’s Pigeon Park (later called Te Aro Park) became a hub of protest in the 1930s. Often protest marches will follow a particular route. In Auckland, most protest marches flow down Queen Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare. Many marches in Wellington wend along Lambton Quay and finish on Parliament’s forecourt. Parliamentarians sometimes meet these protests to address the crowd and express their views on the protest cause. Often the government will receive a delegation from the protest to hear their concerns.
Pink bras in Parliament
In 2003 Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MAdGE) slipped past Parliament’s security and staged a public protest in Parliament’s gallery. They stripped off their shirts, baring bright pink bras and anti-genetic-modification banners in front of MPs. As chants of ‘Mums say no to GMOs’ (genetically modified organisms) rang through the chamber, a security guard escorted the protesters away. Asked why the bras, a MAdGE spokeswoman said: ‘Well, they look good, and pink’s our colour.’1
Private spaces can also become targets of public protest. In 1990 a group from the Unemployed Workers’ Union briefly occupied the boardroom of the Business Roundtable (an influential pressure group), which it accused of promoting policies that created unemployment.
Means of protest
While many public protests involve the occupation of public spaces – pickets, marches and rallies – some communicate grievances through letters, petitions and the arts – paintings, sculpture, and literary and musical composition. The internet has opened up new means of protest. Social networking sites such as Facebook enable users to begin a public protest almost instantly, by setting up a new page where people can register their support. Such sites are also used to organise protests, such as the anti-rape SlutWalk marches in 2011.