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Flag burner in test case

Published: 5:44PM Friday March 14, 2003

Legal history will be made if a Porirua teacher charged over the burning of a New Zealand flag is found guilty.

Paul Hopkinson, 37, appeared in court on Friday charged on two counts.

Police say one charge relates to the desecration of the flag, while the other relates to criminal nuisance, both relating to anti-war protests on Monday.

Hundreds of people attended the protests in Parliament grounds during the official visit of Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

The Porirua teacher claims his right to free speech has been destroyed.

"I don't think we're guilty, I don't think we've brought the flag into disrepute or anything. I think the government has with their actions with the sanctions," Hopkinson told ONE News.

But that doesn't wash with war veterans who call it an insult to those who fought and died under the flag.

"I'm horrified, the individual who burnt the flag, I understand he's a teacher and what reflection does that cast on the children he's teaching?" Tom Parker of the Returned Services Association told ONE News.

Constitutional lawyer Mai Chen says no one has been convicted under the law since it was passed over two decades ago during the height of demonstrations against the 1981 Springbok tour.

No special laws cover the burning of the American flag or the Australian flag - as long as the flames don't endanger others.

But the minute a match comes near the New Zealand flag or the Royal New Zealand Navy ensign it becomes an offence that experts say isn't covered by our rights to freedom of expression.

"The New Zealand Bill of Rights does not prevail if you have a clear provision that says that you will be prosecuted even if you are exercising those rights," Chen told ONE News.

"I guess in the times we're moving towards of war it's interesting that people feel it's important to uphold the honour of the state."

The police wanted the court to stop Hopkinson associating with fellow protester Mark Eden.

That was denied by the judge.

Hopkinson is busy organising another protest for next week, and another march is arranged on March 22.

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