Letter from an Auckland courthouse

Either Cameron Slater deserves our pity, or he deserves our contempt as the Peter Bethune of the right.

Is it wrong to break an unjust law? That's a question that has bedeviled serious moral and political thinkers for centuries - at least since Socrates chose to drink the Hemlock prescribed by the Athenian court rather than accept his friends' offer of escape.

Plato recounts his reasoning in Crito:

"Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us."

Of course, others have disagreed with Socrates' view that we owe an overriding duty to follow the laws of the land, even when these produce unjust outcomes. Rather, they argued that there is a higher duty to confront unjust laws and so expose their evil nature. A number of such rebels have entered into our cultural lexicon as the model of "moral hero".

Te Whiti, Tohu and the peaceful resistors of Parihaka have been transformed into national icons, while the forces of law and order that moved against them are remembered with shame. Ghandi drew inspiration from their actions and inspired a nation to free itself from colonial bondage by civil resistance. Martin Luther King, sitting in the Birmingham jailhouse for leading an non-permited march against the laws of Jim Crow, wrote:

"In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

These are serious people, who have reflected long and hard on the path they are taking and wrestled with the consequences of doing so. They understand that it should be no trivial thing to deliberately disregard the bonds that hold society together; and that where doing so brings a punitive response, this must be accepted as the true price of conscience.

Having said all that, it almost seems wrong to turn to discuss Cameron Slater's trial in Auckland for nine breaches of "name suppression orders". How is his case different? Oh, let me count the ways.

First up, there's the small matter of whether the law he feels is so invidious really is unjust. Name suppression to protect the identity of offenders undoubtedly is problematic, both in theory and in application. But name suppression designed to conceal the identity of victims of violent sexual crime? Is it really so clear that such a limit on expressive freedoms is completely unjustifiable and ought to be cast aside?

Furthermore, even if the law on name suppression is outdated and needs reworking, is the matter so pressing that it demands immediate and deliberate flouting to force change? The Law Commission has released its proposals on this matter. The Government has indicated it plans amendments to the law. What exactly do Mr Slater's actions add to this law reform process?

Sure, Martin Luther King noted that the argument "just give us more time to fix things" should not be used to trump the fierce urgency of now:

"For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.""

But I mean, really ... the curse of name suppression is so wrong and deeply rooted that only way to lift it is by completely ignoring such orders whenever you feel like it? I'll simply note that Mr Slater's views on others who have claimed that moral necessity drove them to take immediate action in breach of the law make for interesting reading.

Then there is the issue of Mr Slater's defence for his actions. Recall what makes Ghandi and Martin Luther King such moral giants. They effectively stood up straight before society and said: "yes - I have broken the law. But I have done so because that law is wrong. Punish me if you will, but know that in doing so you further perpetrate an injustice which you must face up to."

Then compare that stance to Mr Slater's videotaped interview with the police about his activities (as it is recounted here):

"[Mr Slater] says the public deserved to know who the doctor was. He says he printed the name because “he felt like it”

“I’m clinically depressed, I do things sometimes, strange things.” ... “I do random things. There are no names there.”

Slater then confirmed he had read the suppression order for the doctor ... . He admitted knowing he couldn’t publish the doctor’s name but did it anyway.

[The police ask] what medication Slater takes for his depression. He names a number of different drugs which he takes in the morning and the evening. He confirms he is taking medication everyday, otherwise he loses his balance and falls into a ‘blackhole’.

“It is what it is [the] mad ramblings of a mental person”. The Whaleoil posts “are my thoughts”."

Now, I know Mr Slater suffers from a depressive illness. And of course people who are mentally ill sometimes act in ways that are "irrational" or "poorly considered" ... that's what we mean by "mental illness". But Mr Slater's invocation of his cognitive disability when explaining his actions to the Police raise two possibilities.

One is that Mr Slater genuinely cannot control his actions, in which case his decision to identify the names of various offenders in breach of the law really are nothing more than "[the] mad ramblings of a mental person". The other is that Mr Slater is a principled crusader against name suppression laws fully aware of what he is doing, and is using his mental health issues to try and escape prosecution for breaching those laws.

If the former is the case, then his actions are plain dangerous and harmful, not only to himself but to wider society. I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

If Mr Slater is "mental" ... and possesses only limited reasoning skills, then do we really want him taking it upon himself to second guess the entire legal process with regard to whose name will remain suppressed and whose will not? Is that a basis we can found our justice system on - the rules will be those that the person most prepared to push the envelope decides ought to be in place, even if that envelope pushing is the result of seriously disordered thinking?

Furthermore, Mr Slater's supporters in the blogosphere - at least some of whom really should know better - ought to be ashamed of themselves for their enabling role. No one expects them to publicly condemn a friend. But equally, treating his trial as if it is all a huge joke - something akin to rigging an on-line competition to win some wine - is plain childish.

But if the latter possibility is the case - Mr Slater deployed his mental illness as a smokescreen for his considered and deliberate actions - then he is a moral coward. A truly principled person would have looked the police in the eye and said "the public had a right to know these names - I did the right thing." Mr Slater didn't, and so he deserves no credit for his claimed principles.

In fact, he's no better than Peter Bethune collaborating with the Sea Shepherd organisation to escape liability for his actions in the Antarctic waters. (A tactic, it might be noted, that was greeted with outright contempt by some current supporters of Mr Slater.)

Bottom line - if you think you are doing the right thing by breaking the law, then you have to be prepared to make that argument before those that enforce it. And then you have to be prepared to take the consequences for living by your principles. Otherwise, you are just another criminal who deserves nothing more than society's contempt for breaking its rules because you feel like it and then scuttling to avoid responsibility for your actions.