Law Banning Annoying People During Pope's Visit to Australia Criticized

New regulations making it a crime to annoy or inconvenience people gathering in Sydney during Pope Benedict XVI's visit later this month were criticized Tuesday as a heavy-handed blow to free speech.

The laws will apply in dozens of areas of downtown Sydney — including the city's landmark opera house, train stations and city parks — that are designated venues for World Youth Day, a Catholic evangelical festival at which the pontiff will conduct mass and lead prayer meetings.

The regulations give police and emergency services workers power to order anyone to stop behavior that "causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event," according to a New South Wales state government gazette. Anyone who does not comply faces a 5,500 Australian dollar (US$5,300) fine.

Anna Katzman, the president of the New South Wales Bar Association, which represents almost 3,000 lawyers in the state, said making someone's inconvenience the basis of a criminal offense was "unnecessary and repugnant."

"If I was to wear a T-shirt proclaiming that 'World Youth Day is a waste of public money' and refuse to remove it when an officer ... asks me to, I would commit a criminal offense," Katzman said. "How ridiculous is that?"

Lee Rhiannon, a state lawmaker with the left-leaning Greens party, said the definition of what was annoying was open to interpretation and the penalties in the new regulations were too severe.

State Premier Morris Iemma, whose government is paying part of the costs of World Youth Day, defended the regulations, saying they would not be used to put down dissent.

"People have the right to protest; they can do so ... peacefully and lawfully," Iemma said.

Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said the powers were similar to those that police already have at sporting arenas, but were being extended to World Youth Day sites to boost security among the large crowds expected.

"These are powers to stop people taking things in ... like a paint bomb, all of those sort of things that ... certainly you couldn't take to the football on Saturday," Scipione said.

His deputy, Dave Owens, said officers would act reasonably when deciding what is offensive, including clothing.

"Police officers do it every day of the week," Owens told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "We're not the fashion police, we're not killjoys."

World Youth Day spokesman Father Mark Podesta said the church had not sought the increased powers for police during the event.

Almost 200,000 pilgrims have registered to take part in the July 15-20 World Youth Day festival, and organizers say more are expected before the event starts.

The pope will arrive July 12 and spend more than a week in Sydney, first taking a break and then leading a series of prayer gatherings and meetings with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and other officials at a cathedral and other venues downtown. He will also take a boat trip on Sydney Harbor.

The event will be capped by a papal mass at a racetrack in the city on July 20.

Parts of Sydney will be shut down for World Youth Day events, including a re-enactment of the 12 stations of the cross in various parts of the city, a walking pilgrimage by tens of thousands of participants across the Sydney Harbor Bridge and a papal motorcade through the city.