Time to consider scope of triad law after raid

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2007, 12:00am

The arrest of people from a well-known lifestyle chain, for selling T-shirts bearing the name of a triad society, raises important questions about the relationship between freedom of speech and efforts to combat crime.

There is a strong public interest in preventing triad societies from flourishing and curbing their criminal operations. The police have a duty to go about this task with determination. Their concern that clothing bearing the name of the 14K triad society might be worn by gang members and further crime is a genuine one. But the raid on a shop selling trendy T-shirts may be going too far.

The law under which staff at the chain G.O.D. have been arrested has a legitimate aim. It bars people from attending triad meetings, supporting triad organisations or claiming to be triads. The law also prohibits possession of triad paraphernalia, including lists of members, seals or banners.

But the relevant provision of the Societies Ordinance also includes in this list much broader categories, such as books, writings and insignia. It is presumably this part of the legislation that the sale of T-shirts and postcards by the shops is alleged to have breached. It is important to note that the items concerned must, in order to breach the law, be 'of or relating to any triad society'. This suggests there should be a link to triad activity.

The legislation is clearly intended to curb the activities of triad members and those who wish to pass themselves off as triads for the purposes of crime. It was surely not envisaged by those who drafted and passed the law that retailers selling fashion items would be in breach of it - even accepting the concerns about the use to which such shirts may be put.

More worrying are the wider implications of the raid. If interpreted broadly, this law would mean there could be no books or academic papers that mention triad societies. Even factual reports in newspapers that refer to named triad societies and photographs of the seized material would fall foul of the legislation. Indeed, a police officer suggested as much yesterday. This is unacceptable.

If this is the case, questions have to be asked about the police website which, in its history of triad societies, names both the Sun Yee On, Wo Shing Wo and 14K triad groups. A press statement in the government's online archives quotes a senior police officer speaking about the 14K. Even the possession of court rulings, which routinely name triad organisations, would arguably constitute an offence. Surely, none of this contravenes the law.

Freedom of expression can be exercised in many ways. It can take the form of newspaper articles, protest slogans and TV broadcasts. But the right also applies to paintings, sculpture, commercial activities such as advertising - and the wearing of T-shirts. Restrictions on the freedom of expression should not be imposed lightly. There may be circumstances where such restrictions are necessary to prevent crime. Nazi symbols, for example, are understandably outlawed in some parts of the world.

But seeking to prohibit any mention of triad organisations, in any form, is disproportionate to the aim of combating crime.

It will be for the courts to consider the merits of the case against G.O.D. staff, should they be charged. The fashion chain was mischievous in making use of the characters for 14K, as it has been with some of its other products. But the raid raises questions. Consideration needs to be given to whether the law needs to be refined in a way which ensures it does not have too broad a scope.