Greens elected representatives today called for greater legal protection of basic democratic rights of freedom of political expression, in the lead up to a local event in support of Greens upper house parliamentarian, Ian Cohen, who has been hit with $1million legal costs from comments he made in a small community hall in Byron Bay in 2001.

Mr Cohen now faces financial ruin because he criticised a developer at a fundraising event for a fellow environmental activist who was facing legal action by the developer.

Newcastle Greens will be holding an event to support Mr Cohen this Friday night (see details below).

Mr Cohen said he has been receiving tremendous support from right across the community, but was still a long way from being able to meet his costs.

“Newcastle has always had a strong progressive and activist community, who I know are very concerned about how legal processes can be used to chill democratic participation,” Mr Cohen said.

Newcastle Greens councillor Michael Osborne, who will be attending the event, and who has recently been subjected to a council Code of Conduct complaint for his own “involvement in a protest” in December last year, said that these situations demonstrated the need for eternal vigilance and greater protection for basic democratic rights.

“It’s outrageous that our institutional systems can be abused in these ways to muzzle democratic free speech, and it demonstrates the urgent need for law reforms protecting rights of public participation and protest, and giving more legal substance to our right to freedom of political expression.

“In a number of Australian jurisdictions, Greens and public interest groups have proposed legislation to protect public interest advocates against SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). The ACT has already passed such legislation.

“Unfortunately, bringing such proposals into law usually relies on support from one of the big parties, who are often too indebted to the vested interests who want to keep things the way they are.”

The Newcastle Greens event will be at 7:30pm at the Gallipoli Club in Beaumont St, Hamilton on Friday 26 February. Entrance cost is $15 ($10 concession) with all proceeds going to the Ian Cohen Defamation Fund

Mr Cohen will be speaking about his case at the event, and will be supported with performances by popular Hunter rhythm & blues band, The Pop-up Toasters; Newcastle hip-hop band, Dhopec; and local comedienne (and Lake Macquarie Greens councillor), Hannah Gissane.

For further comment, please contact:

Ian Cohen (Greens NSW Member of the Legislative Council) on: 0409 989 466

Michael Osborne (Newcastle Greens councillor) on: 0439 442 984

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