Early this month, 29-year-old musician Jennifer Brooke Pietsch was arrested on the main street of Wangaratta in Victoria for handing out white balloons and copies of Derryn Hinch’s latest blog post. She was charged with contempt of court and 10 days later entered a guilty plea and on Friday was fined $2000 without conviction.

So since when did giving out white balloons  become illegal?

For the past two weeks, Wangaratta has been subject to a suppression order after Judge Michael McInerney banned the presence of Braveheart’s annual White Balloon Day from the city for fear it would prejudice a ongoing trial.

County Court Judge McInerney felt the distribution of material, designed to raise awareness of child abuse, could prejudice the jury of a child-abuse trial taking place in Wangaratta.

Indeed, following Pietsch’s actions, an application was made to discharge the jury. Judge McInerney rejected it, but expressed concern that an appeal could succeed and see the victims subjected to a retrial.

When delivering Pietsch’s sentence, Judge McInerney said Pietsch showed “flagrant disregard of the court order” and said her actions were “dangerous”, pointing out that the fliers were distributed less than 10 metres from the court and the café where the jury ate lunch.

Judge McInerney took into consideration Pietsch’s  emotional state at the time, for she was a victim of child abuse and was due to face her perpetrator in court today.

Pietsch’s lawyer Ashley Halphen described his client’s disappointment with the legal system and said: “She is a kind and gentle person who acted out of character.”

He said Pietsch, who lives on a disability support for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, had been spurred to action by Hinch’s blog.

In the blog post, Hinch says:

Is this a democracy or not? I’m off on sick leave next week for a minor operation but I’m tempted to get out of my sick bed and carry a white balloon down the Main Street of Wangaratta on Tuesday. This is Noddyland.

In court Judge McInerney criticised Hinch, describing his blog as “bile” and adding “a small minority put the 4th estate into disrepute”.

“I accept the emotional fragility you must have been in,” McInerney said to Pietsch, “And I understand you would be disappointed by the legal system. But your flagrant disregard of the court order must be punished.”

White Balloon Day has been celebrated nationally for 13 years, raising awareness and funds for victims of child sex abuse, but its symbolism is hardly well known.

Lawyer Sandip Mukerjea represented Braveheart founder Hetty Johnson in appealing the ban on September 7 and says the ban was unwarranted. Mukerjea says the issues of domestic abuse, child abuse and sexual offences are discussed in public every day and every day there is a trial regarding them somewhere in the country.

“But what the courts acknowledge is, to a large extent, so long as the public agitation of these issues is done in a general way and is played out as an overarching discourse on this issue and is not brought home to bear on the specifics of the particular trial, then the court will not stand in the way of that ongoing public discourse.

“I would have thought the same reasoning would have applied in Wangaratta, but the judge in that case was particularly sensitive to the risk of prejudice.

“Really flying a white balloon is no different to an article on the front page of The Age.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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