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Protesting and organising: Fundamental rights

Your rights to protest and advocate for change

Do I have the right to protest?

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, ss 14, 16, 17

Yes. Your right to protest rests on several specific rights and freedoms that are guaranteed under New Zealand law:

  • the right to meet and organise with others – “Freedom of association”
  • the right to gather and protest with others – “Freedom of peaceful assembly”
  • the right to speak out and say what you think – “Freedom of expression”.

We discuss these different rights below.

So long as you’re not breaking the law, government organisations and the police should recognise and protect your right to protest.

Meeting and organising with others: The right to freedom of association

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 17

Your right to freedom of association includes the right to form any type of organisation, and to associate with any other individual or organisation. When combined with freedom of expression it also includes the right to advertise that you are doing these activities.

Gathering and protesting with others: The right to freedom of peaceful assembly

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 16 Case: Minto (1991) 7 CRNZ 38

Your right to freedom of peaceful assembly means you can gather in a group, so long as this isn’t for a violent purpose, like rioting, and you’re not disturbing the peace. It includes the right to plan and to invite people to the gathering.

Your right to peaceful assembly doesn’t include the right to infringe on other people’s freedom of movement by preventing them from using a road.

Here are some other potential limitations on the right to peaceful assembly:

  • Notifying the authorities in advance – Generally local councils can require you to give them advance notice of a protest if it will disrupt a public space – for example, disrupting traffic by marching along a road. The amount of advance notice they require must be reasonable. In overseas cases the courts said that 15 days was an unreasonable requirement, while six hours was found to be reasonable (see: “Organising a protest”).
  • Number of people – There are no legal limits on the size of your protest, but different size gatherings may require different health and safety issues to be dealt with. For example, if it’s just a small march you may have to walk on the footpath.
  • The length of time – There are no legal limits specifically on how long your protest can go for, but again laws dealing with health and safety may come into play. For example, in one case involving Occupy Auckland and Auckland’s Aotea Square, the judge decided the protest wasn’t protected by the right to peaceful assembly because it was interfering with public use of the space and the protestors had indicated they intended to be there indefinitely.

Speaking out: The right to freedom of expression

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 14 Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993

Your right to freedom of expression means you have the right to seek, receive, and provide (“impart”) information and opinions of any kind, in any form. “Expression” covers a wide range of things, including for example picketing, striking, flag-burning, pornography, non-political expressions, how you dress, and parking a car. The right doesn’t protect violent behaviour.

These are some of the ways your right to freedom of expression can be limited:

  • Interfering with activities you’re opposed to – If you physically interfere with the activity you’re protesting against (for example, tying yourself to a tree about to be cut down), your right to express yourself could be limited by laws such as trespass (see: “Trespass”) .
  • Swearing and offensive language – Offensive language is a minor criminal offence in New Zealand and in some cases swearing at a protest could result in a conviction for this offence. Whether swearing is “offensive” is dealt with case by case.
  • Censorship – In New Zealand some material is banned, like child pornography, and material showing bestiality, acts of torture or extreme violence or cruelty.
Hate speech laws explained

Human Rights Act 1993, s 131 Case: Wall v Fairfax New Zealand Ltd [2018] NZHC

Hate speech is a criminal offence. It’s defined as saying things in a public place that are threatening, abusive or insulting to any group of people in New Zealand because of their racial background. The person also has to intend to cause hate against that group of people, meaning hostility, contempt, or ridicule.

If found guilty of this criminal offence, a person can be jailed for up to three months or fined up to $7,000. However, proving somebody intended to incite hatred is difficult, and the courts have said that it will only be for extreme (“egregious”) cases.

Speech that is threatening, abusive, or insulting because of someone’s religion, sexual orientation and/or gender is not defined as “hate speech” under this legislation.

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