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Flag burning

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Extract from the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 No. 47

In 1981 Parliament passed the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act. This Act strengthened existing legislation relating to the New Zealand flag, and gave formal protection to certain flags and emblems. It also made it an offence to destroy or damage the New Zealand flag ‘in any manner with the intention of dishonouring it’. Until this time the use of flags, emblems and names had been regulated through various pieces of legislation, the New Zealand flag notably under the Shipping and Seamen Act 1952. This Act prohibited the making of alterations to the flag, but not damaging or destroying it.

The first person to be prosecuted for dishonouring the New Zealand flag was a Wellington schoolteacher and Workers' Party member, Paul Hopkinson, in 2003. Hopkinson was filmed setting fire to Australian and New Zealand flags during an anti-war protest outside a state luncheon for Australian Prime Minister John Howard at Parliament Buildings.

Flag burning on Anzac Day

During the dawn service in Wellington on Anzac Day 2007, activist Valerie Morse allegedly burnt a New Zealand flag. Her conviction for offensive behaviour and fine of $500 was upheld by the High Court and Court of Appeal, but quashed by the Supreme Court in May 2011.

Hopkinson was eventually convicted of dishonouring the flag and fined more than $700. But in July 2004 the High Court overturned the decision on the grounds of freedom of expression. Green MP Keith Locke subsequently called for the government to repeal the law, arguing that ‘the Judge made it clear that penalising flag burning would be contrary to the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Bill of Rights'.

When Hopkinson later torched another New Zealand flag, he was charged with disorderly conduct under the Summary Offences Act and convicted. Other people alleged to have dishonoured the flag have been charged with disorderly conduct or offensive behaviour under the same Act.

Update 7 May 2011: 'Ruling makes flag burning legal' (Stuff)

How to cite this page

Flag burning, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/flag-burning, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated


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