Sun, Apr 15, 2018 - Page 6 News List

EDITORIAL: Assembly act in need of revision

A coalition on Wednesday spoke out against a proposal by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to tighten rules on protests in the city. The proposed rules, which are aimed mainly at the temporary structures that have been a mainstay of major protests in the city, would be unconstitutional, the coalition said.

Article 14 of the Constitution states: “The people shall have freedom of assembly and association,” but the government has attempted to more clearly define the limits of this freedom through the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法).

The act was implemented in 1988 following the lifting of martial law in an attempt to prevent protests from devolving into violence during democratization. The act has frequently been criticized.

Nylon Cheng Liberty Foundation managing director Cheng Tsing-hua (鄭清華) on Saturday last week said that the act, along with other legislation, restricts people’s right to freely express themselves.

Whether the government is intentionally suppressing dissent or not, it faces a precarious challenge in balancing public order with freedom of expression.

The first amendment to the US Constitution attempts to address this challenge, stating that people have the right to “peaceably assemble,” thereby empowering authorities to break up protests that have turned violent. Federal and local authorities in the US can set rules on when and where protests can take place, but they should impose as few restrictions as possible on constitutional freedoms. Legal precedents prevent the breakup of protests simply because they cause inconvenience or bother people, or impede traffic (Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 US 229, 1963, and Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 US 611, 1971).

Many might see Ko’s argument that protesters building temporary structures are “political road hogs” as insufficient justification for further restrictions on demonstrations, especially since draft amendments to the act that lessen restrictions have already been proposed.

New Power Party Executive Chairman Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) in February criticized President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for not reforming the act, despite earlier promises to do so.

Arguably, some of the articles in the act are undemocratic and set dangerous precedents. For example, Article 4 states: “Communism or secession shall not be asserted in any assembly or parade.”

In no way should the law in a democratic country dictate a person’s public expression of political will, and attempts to legally suppress public support for Taiwanese independence would be farcical given the political climate in Taiwan.

Article 6 makes demonstrations in front of government buildings, transportation hubs and military facilities illegal, which negates the purpose of protests in the first place, which is to force the authorities to hear grievances and make as much of the public as possible aware of the dissenting message.

Finally, Article 28 empowers authorities to issue dismissal orders on protesters and imposes heavy fines for non-compliance. The government has a responsibility to ensure public safety and maintain public order, but it must not use this responsibility as a pretext for suppression of dissent.

At the same time, the erection and occupation of temporary structures for months or years presents all sorts of legal complications. In many countries, a person would not be permitted to build a shelter on a sidewalk or public property for use as a residence, because it violates laws against encroachment, illegal lodging and obstructing free passage. They also pose sanitation and even safety issues, such as when gas cookers are used. Yet authorities often “tolerate” these structures when the expressed intent is protest.

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