Either Cameron Slater deserves our pity, or he deserves our contempt as the Peter Bethune of the right.

Is it wrong to break an unjust law? That's a question that has bedeviled serious moral and political thinkers for centuries - at least since Socrates chose to drink the Hemlock prescribed by the Athenian court rather than accept his friends' offer of escape.

Plato recounts his reasoning in Crito:

"Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us."

Of course, others have disagreed with Socrates' view that we owe an overriding duty to follow the laws of the land, even when these produce unjust outcomes. Rather, they argued that there is a higher duty to confront unjust laws and so expose their evil nature. A number of such rebels have entered into our cultural lexicon as the model of "moral hero".

Te Whiti, Tohu and the peaceful resistors of Parihaka have been transformed into national icons, while the forces of law and order that moved against them are remembered with shame. Ghandi drew inspiration from their actions and inspired a nation to free itself from colonial bondage by civil resistance. Martin Luther King, sitting in the Birmingham jailhouse for leading an non-permited march against the laws of Jim Crow, wrote:

"In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

These are serious people, who have reflected long and hard on the path they are taking and wrestled with the consequences of doing so. They understand that it should be no trivial thing to deliberately disregard the bonds that hold society together; and that where doing so brings a punitive response, this must be accepted as the true price of conscience.

Having said all that, it almost seems wrong to turn to discuss Cameron Slater's trial in Auckland for nine breaches of "name suppression orders". How is his case different? Oh, let me count the ways.

First up, there's the small matter of whether the law he feels is so invidious really is unjust. Name suppression to protect the identity of offenders undoubtedly is problematic, both in theory and in application. But name suppression designed to conceal the identity of victims of violent sexual crime? Is it really so clear that such a limit on expressive freedoms is completely unjustifiable and ought to be cast aside?

Furthermore, even if the law on name suppression is outdated and needs reworking, is the matter so pressing that it demands immediate and deliberate flouting to force change? The Law Commission has released its proposals on this matter. The Government has indicated it plans amendments to the law. What exactly do Mr Slater's actions add to this law reform process?

Sure, Martin Luther King noted that the argument "just give us more time to fix things" should not be used to trump the fierce urgency of now:

"For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.""

But I mean, really ... the curse of name suppression is so wrong and deeply rooted that only way to lift it is by completely ignoring such orders whenever you feel like it? I'll simply note that Mr Slater's views on others who have claimed that moral necessity drove them to take immediate action in breach of the law make for interesting reading.

Then there is the issue of Mr Slater's defence for his actions. Recall what makes Ghandi and Martin Luther King such moral giants. They effectively stood up straight before society and said: "yes - I have broken the law. But I have done so because that law is wrong. Punish me if you will, but know that in doing so you further perpetrate an injustice which you must face up to."

Then compare that stance to Mr Slater's videotaped interview with the police about his activities (as it is recounted here):

"[Mr Slater] says the public deserved to know who the doctor was. He says he printed the name because “he felt like it”

“I’m clinically depressed, I do things sometimes, strange things.” ... “I do random things. There are no names there.”

Slater then confirmed he had read the suppression order for the doctor ... . He admitted knowing he couldn’t publish the doctor’s name but did it anyway.

[The police ask] what medication Slater takes for his depression. He names a number of different drugs which he takes in the morning and the evening. He confirms he is taking medication everyday, otherwise he loses his balance and falls into a ‘blackhole’.

“It is what it is [the] mad ramblings of a mental person”. The Whaleoil posts “are my thoughts”."

Now, I know Mr Slater suffers from a depressive illness. And of course people who are mentally ill sometimes act in ways that are "irrational" or "poorly considered" ... that's what we mean by "mental illness". But Mr Slater's invocation of his cognitive disability when explaining his actions to the Police raise two possibilities.

One is that Mr Slater genuinely cannot control his actions, in which case his decision to identify the names of various offenders in breach of the law really are nothing more than "[the] mad ramblings of a mental person". The other is that Mr Slater is a principled crusader against name suppression laws fully aware of what he is doing, and is using his mental health issues to try and escape prosecution for breaching those laws.

If the former is the case, then his actions are plain dangerous and harmful, not only to himself but to wider society. I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

If Mr Slater is "mental" ... and possesses only limited reasoning skills, then do we really want him taking it upon himself to second guess the entire legal process with regard to whose name will remain suppressed and whose will not? Is that a basis we can found our justice system on - the rules will be those that the person most prepared to push the envelope decides ought to be in place, even if that envelope pushing is the result of seriously disordered thinking?

Furthermore, Mr Slater's supporters in the blogosphere - at least some of whom really should know better - ought to be ashamed of themselves for their enabling role. No one expects them to publicly condemn a friend. But equally, treating his trial as if it is all a huge joke - something akin to rigging an on-line competition to win some wine - is plain childish.

But if the latter possibility is the case - Mr Slater deployed his mental illness as a smokescreen for his considered and deliberate actions - then he is a moral coward. A truly principled person would have looked the police in the eye and said "the public had a right to know these names - I did the right thing." Mr Slater didn't, and so he deserves no credit for his claimed principles.

In fact, he's no better than Peter Bethune collaborating with the Sea Shepherd organisation to escape liability for his actions in the Antarctic waters. (A tactic, it might be noted, that was greeted with outright contempt by some current supporters of Mr Slater.)

Bottom line - if you think you are doing the right thing by breaking the law, then you have to be prepared to make that argument before those that enforce it. And then you have to be prepared to take the consequences for living by your principles. Otherwise, you are just another criminal who deserves nothing more than society's contempt for breaking its rules because you feel like it and then scuttling to avoid responsibility for your actions.

Comments (12)

by stuart munro on August 26, 2010
stuart munro

Oh I don't know - the force of unjust law need not always be taken on the chin. Certainly if one wants to be a martyr or a crusading hero, there is something to be said for a principled stand. But such stands are expensive. Even Solon feigned madness to beat the proscription on discussing Salamis. Nor is principled opposition the only way to defeat bad law - Thatcher's poll tax for example, was defeated by non-compliance and rioting in the streets.

There are levels of injustice in law also - some merit principled opposition, others are merely silly, and generally ignored. It might be that name suppression is closer to the second than the first - as is cannabis use.

One of the Saxon Kings said, when it came to the law that "he dared not set down much of his own", the belief being that law belonged to the people. NZ legislators on the other hand, dare much, creating the mortal remnant of a small rainforest of new law every year. And much of it does not enjoy anything that could be mistaken for public assent. So our laws are not of the quality of Solon's - sensible, equitable, and just - and no one respects them in a canonical sense anymore - nor should they.

It is perfectly possible to entertain reasonable doubt as to the wrongness of breaking name suppression orders. But the defence of judicial infallibilty, or at least of judicial power, seems likely to be the deciding criterion here - for good or ill.

by Lew on August 26, 2010
Lew

Thanks, Andrew, for saying with far more elegance and nuance what I've also tried to say about this case. Plato and King trumps Cruise and Nicholson.

L

by Graeme Edgeler on August 26, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

As I see it, Cameron Slater believes it is the in the public interest that the names of people charged with criminal offences are made public. He also believes that by making suppression orders, Judges harm the public interest and protect criminals.

There are multiple ways in which Cameron could reach his goal. He can try to persaude judges to make fewer suppression orders (quite difficult, I imagine). He can try to persaude Parliament to amend the law (also quite difficult). Or he can argue that the law allows people in his situation to publicly name people despite suppression orders (for example, because suppression orders do not apply to conversations, or because suppression orders, as a matter of law, only preclude the news media from doing this.

His aim is a society in which people can be made aware of the identities of people charged with offences - I don't see anything particularly ignoble in trying to do that through a court case instead of seeking a law change. If Judge Harvey decides that blog posts aren't "reports" within the meaning of s 140 of the Criminal Justice Act, Cameron doesn't just get off, he wins. And it would be a victory in no less sense than it was for the parents in Re AMM and KJO.

by Mark Bennett on August 26, 2010
Mark Bennett

It is interesting that many prominent legal philosophers deny any prima facie moral obligation to obey the law.

It gets more complicated when you factor in that people disagree on morality and the fact that we generally think that democratic decision-making is in theory the appropriate way of resolving this disagreement when we need to live by shared rules. So we might be reluctant to have judges substituting their views of what is right for that made through the democratic process.

The counter to that is to question whether the democratic process is working in a way that it should (which it undoubtedly does not, due to our constitutional structures, our political culture, and our pervasive socio-economic inequalities); there is also an argument that where there are questions of fundamental rights at stake, democratic decisions can be overturned. But as Jeremy Waldron argues, there are disagreements about what our fundamental rights are, so where democracy is working well, that is the appropriate way of resolving such disagreement.

Some readers may be interested in reading this analysis of our moral obligation to obey the law, written by one the most prominent legal philosophers, Leslie Green. The most relevant discussion begins at section 3.  

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legal-obligation/

A couple of more complex discussions are available here:

http://lawweb.usc.edu/users/amarmor/reading/documents/smithEDiTED.pdf

http://lawweb.usc.edu/users/amarmor/reading/documents/Raz233242.pdf

by Andrew Geddis on August 26, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Lew,

But you've got moving pictures and stuff on your post. I don't know how to do that kind of fancy-pants stuff ...

Graeme,

Of course litigation strategies can complement efforts to promote positive legal change - witness the SCLC's strategy of legal challenges to segregation in the USA. But looking for any available ex-post facto legal reason for why your principled stand against the law wasn't really against the law somewhat saps the moral courage from your actions (much less telling the cops that your depression makes you "do random things"). And if Mr Slater does manage to get off on a pure technicality, I predict it will result in change to the name suppression laws to make it clear that they apply (in whatever form they apply - they are up for change anyway) to the internet as much as to "traditional" media. In other words, as a strategy I think his technical arguments are not likely to win the law change he wants ... as compared with the outcome of Re AMM and KJO (there's no way Parliament is going to rewrite the adoption laws to undo that ruling). In fact, the better (and somewhat ironic) analogy to Mr Slater's case might be the Waihopai 3 - their successful use of the "claim of right" defence all but ensured its legal demise. To say nothing of the fact that the parents at issue in Re AMM and KJO just wanted to regularise their family life, not change the world ...

Mark,

Interesting links. Thanks.

by BeShakey on August 27, 2010
BeShakey
The other obvious problem with saying that it is ok to disobey unjust laws is figurng out how to judge which laws are unjust. If we had such a loophole (whether moral or legal) an enormous variety of acts could be argued to come under it. Slater provides a perfect example of the problems of allowing people to identify unjust laws themselves and then proceed to flout them.
by stuart munro on August 27, 2010
stuart munro

@ BeShakey- true. But as Mark's links discuss,we cannot entirely cede moral authority to the legislature or the judiciary either. We have to look at some presumptions from time to time and tease them out.

Properly speaking there is probably a dynamic tension between individual and institutional judgment, and we may from time to time break the law for what we conceive to be good reasons. If the preponderance of opinion is with us, as in assisted euthanasia in some cases, no charges are laid.

Whaleoil looks instead to be heading for the trypots - even though name suppression is widely held to be an instance of judicial creep. A country with problems as serious as New Zealand's needs a constant supply of scapegoats.

by Justin Maloney on August 27, 2010
Justin Maloney

@Mark, nice links thanks.

To me it seems like at least some of the debate around the flaws in our democracy come from the possible mixing up of concepts of majoritarian rule and democratic rule. Decisions made by the majority are not necessarily democratic ones.

Many of the martyrs referred to in Andrews eloquent post were standing up for what they believed were democratic principles, against the rules of the majority (or at least those who held the balance of power at the time).

Of course I'm not even going to attempt to suggest we can all agree on what democracy means or stands for, any more than we can agree on fundamental rights. But when we have rules created by the majority (or as someone may point out by the corrupt minority in parliament) there has to be an option to disobey them in order to adhere to democratic principles. In the end the only sanction on disobedience can be informed public opinion, not exactly easy to get but there are options (Citizens Assemblies anyone...).

If Slater really believes name suppression is undemocratic and a breach of principles of justice that go with that then good on him making a stand. But I agree with Andrew's conclusion. If you believe in something is right stand up for it by all means but take the consequences if you are wrong.

by william blake on August 27, 2010
william blake

Andrew those are some serious examples of standing up for what you believe is right and just because Cameron Slater does not fit their template does not mean he is wrong.

It is easy to hide on the internet, it is a safe place to attack society. If Cameron Slater is afraid of authority and becomes defensive when questioned by the police while medicated and depressed; it is understandable.

His efforts deserve more than further labeling, they deserve understanding and compassion.

 

by Andrew Geddis on August 27, 2010
Andrew Geddis

William,

One of the ways we judge the moral value of our actions is by measuring them against exemplars. So while very few of us can hope to rise to the heights of Te Whiti or ML King, we can examine what it is in their actions that is deeply admirable and ask "how well/poorly do my efforts stack up against this?" Think of it as a secular version of "What Would Jesus Do?"

As for whether Mr Slater's "efforts deserve more than further labeling, they deserve understanding and compassion", you may well be right. I don't know him. All I am saying is that the behaviour he displayed when interviewed by the police is inconsistent with his own claims to be motivated by principled opposition to the law. And I'd further note that my main criticism in this post is not actually of Mr Slater himself, but those who have encouraged or rewarded his misguided actions either directly or by treating the matter as some sort of humorous game. It seems to me that they should be showing a little bit more "understanding and compassion", rather than acting as enablers of the misguided actions of an ill man.

by william blake on August 31, 2010
william blake

I agree the matter is too serious to be treated as a game Andrew, and the running for available cover when the 'knock at the door' comes is not an admirable trait.

Slater may well have been naively goaded into leading an internet sited charge on the issue of court ordered name supression and the concept of principled attack was just an afterthought. But isn't it often told that it is the fool who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes on?

by Frank Macskasy on July 01, 2011
Frank Macskasy

10:15am – Defence lawyer Thwaite asking for all details of the prosecution to remain suppressed.

 

Cameron instructed his lawyer to seek suppression of all details?

 

That, to me, speaks volumes.

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