World Youth Day is a mass gathering of Catholic pilgrims, held every two or three years in different venues around the world. The 23rd World Youth Day was held in Sydney, Australia, in July 2008. The festival was attended by more than 125,000 overseas visitors and countless numbers of Australian Catholics. It was highlighted by a visit from the Pope, Benedict XVI. During each of the five days of the festival, the thousands of attendees attended Mass and Catechism, before attending social gatherings, exhibitions, seminars and concerts. Organisers of World Youth Day hailed it as a tremendous success, while NSW Police and the State government praised those in attendance for their good behaviour.
The festival attracted some criticism, however. There were sizeable government contributions to World Youth Day organisers; the NSW State government gave $129 million to the event while the Federal government contributed $55 million. More controversial was the World Youth Day Act (NSW, 2006) passed to keep order during the festival. Fearing disruption and protests from socialists, pro-choice organisations and other groups opposed to Catholic beliefs, the NSW government legislated that certain individuals could be prosecuted for behaviours that were deemed “annoying” to World Youth Day attendees. Individuals who breached these regulations could be fined up to $5500. The power to enforce these regulations was delegated not only to the NSW Police but also to volunteer firemen and SES personnel.
The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the extreme nature of this regulation in an article dated July 1st 2008:
Extraordinary new powers will allow police to arrest and fine people for “causing annoyance” to World Youth Day participants and permit partial strip searches at hundreds of Sydney sites, beginning today. The laws, which operate until the end of July, have the potential to make a crime of wearing a T-shirt with a message on it, undertaking a Chaser-style stunt, handing out condoms at protests, riding a skateboard or even playing music, critics say.
Police and volunteers from the State Emergency Service and Rural Fire Service will be able to direct people to cease engaging in conduct that “causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event”. People who fail to comply will be subject to a $5500 fine.
The president of the NSW Bar Association, Anna Katzmann, SC, described the regulations as “unnecessary and repugnant”. The Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said if someone exposed themselves in public, they faced a fine of only $1100 or six months’ jail under the Summary Offences Act. “So if someone flashes a WYD participant they will face a $1100 penalty but if they wear an anti-Catholic T-shirt they could face a $5500 penalty,” she said.
The act generated immediate outrage, both from political groups and the NSW legal fraternity. Two Sydney activists, Rachel Evans and Amber Pike (pictured above) from the NoToPope Coalition, had planned to attend World Youth Day to protest the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and abortions. Evans and Pike challenged the validity of the World Youth Day amendment in the Federal Court. They argued that the legislation “impermissibly burdens the implied freedom of communication under the Constitution”, and that the NSW State government had exceeded its power in regulating to stop conduct that was “annoying” to World Youth Day participants. The Federal Court agreed, noting that the while the State had the legislative power to prevent “disruptive behaviour” and “inconvenience” to attendees, the term “annoyance” was much too broad and could feasibly be used to limit or prohibit any kind of human behaviour. The court also examined the NoToPope Coalition’s planned activities and ruled that they fell within the boundaries of legitimate political expression. As a result, the section of the act preventing “annoying” behaviour was ruled to be invalid.