Why sound and the law need a fair hearing

By Will Temple

For an institution built on principles like a fair hearing in court, the law has been strangely tin-eared when it comes to questions of sound. 

So says Dr James Parker, a senior lecturer at Melbourne Law School.

“The idea that law is or should be exclusively rational and associated more with text or speech than sound or song is a very dangerous idea.

Sound is at the centre of our story about law: it is called a hearing for a reason.

“The gavel is one of the most recognisable symbols of justice globally. And what is it? It’s something that makes a sound: an acoustic equivalent of the judge’s robes, a symbol of their authority to speak and be heard.”

Dr Parker’s research is being conducted through Melbourne Law School’s Institute for International Law and the Humanities, a hub that combines legal studies with areas like history, anthropology, literature and music.

This collision of disciplines was explored in his recently published monograph Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi, which examines the trial of one of Rwanda’s most well-known and popular figures who was accused of inciting genocide through his songs.

“Not only did these songs feature regularly on the radio throughout Rwanda. People were actually singing them as they were hacking people up with machetes,” Dr Parker says.

“These songs played an enormously important role in the genocide then, but as to exactly how that worked or the nature and extent of Bikindi’s responsibility for them, the trial doesn’t really resolve these questions.”

In calling linguists as expert witnesses instead of musicologists, the tribunal signalled it was interested in the lyrics over other elements of the songs such as the music, delivery and reception, a situation Dr Parker finds problematic.

If songs are capable of moving people to violence, it is surely not, or not just because of their lyrics or the ‘messages’ they convey.

The tribunal eventually decided the songs incited racial hatred but not genocide. Instead, it was a public speech the musician gave that had him convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail and will see him released this year.

Dr Parker’s research also explores what he refers to as the “weaponisation of sound”, where acoustic devices are being used as a policing mechanism.

One such example is the emergence of the Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) as a tool of crowd control.

Originally developed for the US military, the LRAD was first used on American soil during the G20 protests in Pittsburgh in 2009 and since then has been used across the world for crowd management by police. LRADs are now used by police throughout Australia.

“The LRAD can be used to transmit ordinary speech or music over long distances, but it’s the so-called “alert function” that has led to it being called an acoustic weapon, because the human ear is peculiarly vulnerable to high-pitched frequencies at such loud volumes.

“That sound on the ear is so hard to endure, people are compelled to run away from it because it is so painful.

There is something worrying, politically speaking, about this move (of which the LRAD is just one part) towards the policing of mass bodies through sound.

Dr Parker says a key way to move towards a better understanding of the relationship between sound and the law is to view the law as inherently interdisciplinary. 

“I would like the conversation about sound and the law to be expanded beyond just copyright and noise pollution.

“There are lots of areas in which these two issues come together. Ultimately, one is legislative reform,” he says. “But it’s not the only one. We need to cultivate a genuine sensitivity to questions of sound across legal thought and practice.”

Banner image: Soundwave

Credit: supplied

This is an amended version on an article originally published on Pursuit
This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 15, June 2016.