When Brittany Higgins, a former government staff member, came forward with her allegations of rape, which she said took place inside Australia’s Parliament building, the entire country was transfixed. Her claim that she had been assaulted by a colleague in the defense minister’s office while she was sleeping after a night of drinking prompted protests across Australia by women demanding changes in a male-dominated political culture.
But this week, journalists and the broader public in Australia got a stern reminder to be extremely careful about how to report on and talk about the case.
This week, a prominent TV journalist won an award for her interview last year with Ms. Higgins, and in her acceptance speech praised Ms. Higgins for her courage. That promoted the judge in the case to order a delay to the trial, which had been about to start. The journalist’s remarks, the judge said, risked swaying the jury, because their implication was that Ms. Higgins was truthful.
The postponement has raised the question of whether Australia’s contempt of court laws get the balance right between freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. We’ve previously written about how suppression orders banning coverage of sensitive cases have become more frequent in some parts of Australia, and what some legal experts describe as a lack of faith in jurors’ ability to distinguish what they read in the media and what they hear in the courtroom. Australian courts even sometimes require the removal of books written about a case or a defendant before a trial starts, temporarily censoring relevant information for everyone to keep it from reaching just a handful of jurors.