Q:To what extent did public and political opinion in the west undermine the impartiality of judicial decision-making during the cold-war era?
In a famous dissent, Justice Douglas of the US Supreme Court declared:
‘We have deemed it more costly to liberty to suppress despised minorities than to let them vent their spleen’ (Dennis v United States U.S. 494 at p. 585 (1951) (U.S.S.C.).
No western democracy has practiced the tolerance exposed [mistake in video, it should read “expoused”] by Justice Douglas-in the above statement, without at some stage censoring unpopular organizations. Douglas was in a minority of two on a US Supreme Court bench which upheld convictions entered against Communist party sympathizers for conspiring to overthrow the US government. (Joseph, P,think it’s “1998” edn., Constitutional and Administrative Law in New Zealand, ).
In Dennis v United States, above, the US Supreme Court upheld convictions against communist party officials for conspiring to teach or advocate the overthrow of the government by force or violence. Here, the Court considered that the advocacy of the communist doctrine was to be equated with conspiring to forcibly overthrow the US government.
Dennis was decided in 1951, at the height of cold-war tensions between the USSR and the US. Justice Black aligned with Justice Douglas in the minority stating:
‘Public opinion being what it is now, few will protest the conviction of these Communist petitioners. There is hope, however, that in calmer times, when present pressures, passions, and fears subside, this or some other later court will restore the First Amendment liberties to the high place where they belong in a free society.’ (Dennis, supra, at 581).
Justice Black’s statement was realized six years later in Yates v United States 354 U.S. 298 (1957) (U.S.S.C). This time, a differently constituted Supreme Court bench quashed the convictions of 14 Communist Party leaders that had been entered for similar reasons under the same Act.
With the easing of east-west relations, the Court drew a clear distinction between the advocacy of forcible overthrow of government-as an abstract doctrine, and the advocacy of action to achieve that result.
According to legal philosopher Wolfgang Friedman, it was impossible to remove the judgment of the US Supreme Court from the political tensions and public opinions that existed at that time. (W. Friedman, Legal Theory, (4th edn. , 1960, at p.95).
Australia also expressed abhorrence at communist doctrine during the post-war era. In Burns v Ransley (1949) 79 C.L.R. 101 (H.C.), the Australian High Court upheld a conviction for sedition entered against a communist speaker who, when asked, announced that, in the event of a war, he would fight on the side of the Soviet Union. He was convicted for words he had spoken in reply to a hypothetical question, and not for inciting mutiny or violence.
The following year the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 (Cth) declared the Australian Communist Party to be a revolutionary organization which jeopardized the defence of the Commonwealth. The statute dissolved the Communist Party and all affiliated organizations declared illegal under the Act.
The fundamental democratic principle of freedom of expression was restored when a majority of the High Court of Australia in Australian Communist Party v Commonwealth (1951) 83 CLR 1, declared the Communist Dissolution Act 1950 (Cth) to be unconstitutional and beyond the defence powers of the Commonwealth (see also R v Sharky (1949) 79 CLR 121).
During the early 1980s in New Zealand, Priminister Robert Muldoon took exception to the Socialist Unity Party and questioned it’s right to exist in a free and democratic society. However, a government, expounding the rule of law, must demonstrate greater justification for out-lawing a particular group or organization, for reasons other than personal enmity (Joseph, supra, at p.191).
See also New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s.14 (right to freedom of expression), and related case law; and Human Rights Act 1993, s.21(j)(prohibits discrimination on grounds of political opinion) incorporated, by reference, into s.19 NZBORA; note also- Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act 2007; & see Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981, s.11 (offences involving New Zealand flag)
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