A sort of, quite limited defence of Stewart Murray Wilson

Yes ... Stewart Murray Wilson is a "Beast". But that doesn't mean you can treat him howsoever you want.

So Stewart Murray Wilson is "free", and the representatives of the people of Whanganui appear none to happy about that. According to the Herald:

Last night, the [Wanganui District] councillors approved five action points:

* To investigate the possibility of launching an appeal against Justice Ronald Young's High Court ruling.

* To undertake political lobbying to pass retrospective legislation.

* To form a group with the aim of launching a community safety plan.

* To co-ordinate a community shunning of Wilson.

* To ban Wilson from all council parks, reserves and recreational facilities.

Now, I ain't no fancy largish town/smallish city local body politician or nothin', but to me this looks like a list of things that an elected Council would throw together so that it can assure the good ratepayers of the River City that it is doing "everything it possibly can" in response to a good old fashioned outbreak of community hysteria like this; helped along (of course) by that voice of reason and good sense, Michael Laws.

[To pre-empt and respond to an almost inevitable challenge ... no, I would not be particularly "happy" to have Wilson released to "live next door to my family". However, that doesn't quite represent the reality of Wilson's situation; in Whanganui, he is living under direct 24 hour supervision and electronic monitoring while subject to a raft of other release conditions in a house sited on prison land some 300 meters from the nearest dwelling place. And if it turned out that the best place for Wilson in New Zealand really was a residence some 300 meters from my house, then I would accept his presence under the strict conditions he faces as the price of living in a society with a civilised criminal justice system.]

So sure, the Wanganui District Council can look into throwing a whole bunch more ratepayer's money away on further court action ... but I do wonder if, when push comes to shove, it will actually do so. It can also urge the Government to pass a law that takes someone who is presently living outside jail without causing immediate harm and put them into jail purely in response to a fear they might do something bad in the future ... but I'll bet the Government isn't prepared to trash our constitution to quite this extent. It can even "form a group with the aim of launching a community safety plan" and "co-ordinate a community shunning of Wilson" - whatever the hell these phrases mean. I mean, how exactly do you "co-ordinate" a community's non-interaction with an individual? Will the Council organise groups of Whanganui residents to serve in staggered shifts with the express purpose of not associating with Wilson? Or will it, more ominously, seek to put pressure on any person or group that does choose to associate with Wilson to cease doing so?

But what about the last action on its action list - can the Council ban Wilson from all its parks, reserves and recreational facilities? I rather suspect not. 

After all, everyone lawfully in NZ is free to walk through and enjoy the Whanganui District Council's many beautiful parks, reserves and recreational facilities ... that's a basic right we all enjoy as an expression of our right to freedom of movement under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. Sure, that right to enter and enjoy those public spaces can be limited in various ways at different times: a park may be closed to the public for maintenance reasons; people can be stopped from cycling or skateboarding in them; appropriate attire may be demanded of users; some access charge may be levied; and so on. But before the Council can prevent people from entering their parks, reserves and recreational facilities, they have to be able to show that their reason for prohibiting that use is "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society".  

So, on what grounds can the Wanganui District Council say to Wilson "despite your basic right to move freely over public lands, you still can't enter any of these public parks and other areas at all, for any reason"? How can the Council justify its decision to ban him completely from being on this land?

Well, one reason the Council may give is "public safety". Wilson has, after all, committed some pretty nasty crimes. And the parole board has indicated that it regards him as being at a high risk of reoffending (although note, this is not the same as saying he definitely will reoffend ... it instead means he is statistically more likely to do so than is an "average" offender of his age/profile.) So surely the Council is justified in saying he can't come into its parks, etc because he represents an unacceptable risk to the safety of other citizens?

Except ... really? For one thing, Wilson's offending history doesn't involve attacks on complete strangers carried out in parks or other public places. His practice was to gain the trust of women and girls, then stupify and rape them in his home. So where is the evidence that, if he was allowed to enter into parks, he'd pose a risk of offending against random strangers in those particular places?

And for another thing, Wilson's parole conditions prohibit him from having any contact at all with any children under 16, as well as from having any females in his home without prior approval. So if Wilson were to meet some potential victim in a park or elsewhere and try to bring them to his house, he would already be in breach of his release conditions and thus liable for a recall to prison. So there's already safeguards in place to stop him using the parks, etc for offending purposes.

To say nothing of the fact that under his present terms of release, he is to be accompanied by two "minders" every time he leaves his house. Now, this term is under review after a High Court judge questioned whether it really was designed to help reintegrate him into the community - but you can be sure that the Parole Board isn't going to let Wilson go wandering around Whanganui's parks and playgrounds without someone closely watching over his every move. 

All of which makes any claim that the Council wants to keep Wilson from its parks and other spaces in order to protect its citizens a bit dubious. Or, at the least, it seems that the net increase in public safety gained from this step is negligible, given the already tight controls over his activities.

Which makes me wonder if the Council's real reason for seeking to ban Wilson from its parks and other spaces is simply to spare other people the sheer uncomfortableness of having to be near him. In other words, the Council isn't so much seeking to keep the public safe from Wilson as to keep them from having to see him. That objective would be consistent with its claimed objective of organising a "community shunning" of Wilson.

But can a Council really do this? Is it "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society" for a public authority to say to an individual "we won't let you enter into public areas because other people don't like you and don't want you around"?

I don't think so. And I also think that, if it ever came before a court, a judge wouldn't think so either. 

But I suspect that the Council is betting this issue will never get that far - that Wilson won't have the money to challenge this action in court, and that he won't risk (or won't be permitted to risk) the consequences of challenging it physically by trying to enter a park. Instead, it's a probably another costless piece of red meat that the Council can throw into the maw of an enraged populace.