Home | Browse Topics | Government & legal system | Activism | Protests and the general criminal law

Government & legal system

Protests and the general criminal law

Behaviour and language

Disorderly behaviour

Summary Offences Act 1981, ss 3, 4(1)(a) Case: Morse v Police [2011] NZSC 45

One criminal offence that protestors are sometimes charged with is behaving in an offensive or disorderly manner in a public place. This is a minor offence, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. However, the police can still arrest you without a warrant for this.

To get a conviction, the police would have to prove something more than, for example, that some people were seriously offended – they’d have to prove you disrupted public order so that other members of the public weren’t able to go about their normal activities in that public place.

There’s also a more serious version of this offence, which is where your behaviour is likely to cause violence against people or damage to property. This carries the possibility of a short jail term, up to three months, or a fine up to $2,000.

What if I swear at a protest? What if I swear at or insult the police?

Summary Offences Act 1981, s 4

Offensive language in a public place is a minor criminal offence in New Zealand. In some cases, repeatedly swearing on a protest could result in a conviction for this offence.

However, this will depend a lot on the particular circumstances, including exactly what you said, how often, and so on. The judge will take into account your right to freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights in deciding whether on balance how you behaved was serious enough to breach the criminal law.

In some cases, swearing at the police on a protest could also amount to offensive language. However, the courts have said that police officers (along with other professionals who deal with vulnerable people like WINZ staff, teachers, nurses, and doctors), should be expected to put up with a greater amount of abuse than ordinary members of the public. The judge will take this into account in deciding whether on balance your behaviour amounted to “offensive behaviour”.

Threatening a police officer could amount to the offence of assaulting a police officer, which is punishable by up to six months’ jail or a fine of up to $4,000. This is because an “assault” includes the threat of an assault.

Making noise

There are restrictions around when and where you can make noise. Your local council is responsible for deciding whether the noise is above a reasonable level. If a council noise control officer thinks you’re making too much noise at a protest, they could issue you an Excessive Noise Direction (END), ordering you to reduce the noise to a reasonable level. If you don’t immediately obey, the police can take away things that you’re using to make noise – for example, drums or a megaphone (see: “Noise”).

Damage to property

Summary Offences Act 1981, s 11

You could be charged with wilful damage if you intentionally damage property.

If you damage property accidently, you might also be responsible under the civil (non-criminal) law for paying for the damage.

Can I throw things? What if I throw soft things?

Glitter bombs, shoes, cream pies, and many other items have all been thrown in the name of different causes. Throwing things, even soft things, can legally be a criminal assault.

Can I disguise myself?

Crimes Act 1961, s 86

Yes. There is no New Zealand law that explicitly prohibits you from disguising yourself during a protest.

It is possible that a disguise can be taken as indicating that you intend to do something illegal. However, being disguised on its own doesn’t turn a peaceful assembly into an unlawful one.

If I’m protesting animal cruelty, is it OK to bring along my pets?

Dog Control Act 1996

Yes, but you may need to obey laws to do with things like leashes, registration, and dangerous dogs. There will be bylaws set by your local council that you can check. If you bring an animal, you can be held responsible for its actions.

People from overseas get the same protections as New Zealand residents during a protest

Even if you’re not a resident of New Zealand, you’re still allowed to protest, so long as you don’t break the law.

However if you are convicted of an offence this might affect your visa or ability to gain residency status later on. For information about being deported for criminal offending, see: “Deportation: Being made to leave New Zealand“.

Did this answer your question?


Where to go for more support

Community Law


Your local Community Law Centre can provide initial free legal advice and information.

Also available as a book

The Community Law Manual

The Manual contains over 1000 pages of easy-to-read legal info and comprehensive answers to common legal questions. From ACC to family law, health & disability, jobs, benefits & flats, Tāonga Māori, immigration and refugee law and much more, the Manual covers just about every area of community and personal life.

Buy The Community Law Manual

Help the manual

We’re a small team that relies on the generosity of all our supporters. You can make a one-off donation or become a supporter by sponsoring the Manual for a community organisation near you. Every contribution helps us to continue updating and improving our legal information, year after year.

Donate Become a Supporter

Find the Answer to your Legal Question

back to top