Australian students lose battle over right to print shoplifting "how-to" manual

AUSTRALIA — Four former editors of an Australian collegenewspaper have lost an appeal that claimed a tongue-in-cheek articlethey published about shoplifting in 1995 was protected speech.

After arguments from both sides that cited free speech courtrulings in the United States, an Australian federal court upheldthe ban on the article, and the students may now face criminalcharges that include fines of up to $52,000 U.S. and/or six yearsin jail.

The article, published in the Rabelais at La Trobe Universityin Victoria, was titled “The Art of Shoplifting,” andgave detailed instructions on how to steal, with suggestions suchas “It is a good idea to keep your back to the camera asmuch as possible without looking suspicious.”

The article also gave techniques on finding blind spots ina store and stealing clothes while in a changing room. Severalother student newspapers faced fines after reprinting the article.

The courtdecision upheld Australia’s Classification Review Board decisionthat the article was not protected political speech and was considered”objectionable” under the Classification Film and PublicationsAct of 1995. The court’s opinion included reference to the 1969U.S. Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, which thecourt used to support its contention that even in the United States,speech that “induces” crime may not be protected.

“One of the acknowledged interests which may restrictthe constitutionally protected freedom of speech is the need toprotect against words which may induce the commission of crime,”the court wrote in its opinion.

Media law experts in the United States say, however, the Australiancourt misinterpreted Brandenburg. There is a big difference,they contend, between speech that advocates a crime — which isprotected — and speech that “incites imminent lawless action.”The Brandenburg decision outlawed only the latter.

A recent example of this difference recently came from a federalcourt ruling in Maryland, where publishing company Paladin EnterprisesInc. faced a wrongful death lawsuit from the families of threepeople who were murdered by a contracted killer.

James Perry was sentenced to death for the murders he committedmore than one year after he bought the book Hit Man: A TechnicalManual for Independent Contractors. The book included chapterssuch as “The Disposable Silencer,” “Homework andSurveillance” and “Getting the Job Done Right.”The family claimed Paladin marketed the book to assist peoplewith instructions on how to commit murder.

The judge, however, dismissed the case and stated that whilethe book may have advocated violence, it did not “inciteimminent lawless action.”

The students at La Trobe University have not yet decided whetherthey will appeal the Australian court’s decision.