The arrests of anti-British protesters have raised concerns about freedom of expression, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.
THE RIGHT TO PROTEST, delicate and modestly protected by the British courts, did not become so powerful until it was confirmed by European law. In the UK, criticizing other countries for suppressing protest rights is standard fare.
So it was an unpleasant surprise – at least in many talking heads – that people were arrested to protest against the monarchy after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
That surprise is wrong. In the UK, protesters can be evicted before the use of force, with vague powers exercised by the police. An old, old favorite is a breach of the peace, something many a green-robed officer is bound to see at any gathering of people.
In addition to the general powers available to the police, i Public Order Act 1986 The UK also includes cases of public order. Section 5 enumerates the circumstances in which a person is guilty of such a crime, where ‘use threatening or abusive language or behavior or conduct that is abusive or immoral’ or presentation ‘any text, sign or visual representation that is threatening or abusive’.
An additional, emotional component is also added to the law. Such a journey should take place ‘in the hearing or sight of a person who may be offended, alarmed or distressed thereby’. During the mourning period declared by the government, the misuse of such words is endless, without the proper protection of “reasonable accusations” available to the accused.
It is precisely in these words that suppression of protest can easily occur. The conditions of grief were so complete after the death of Princess Diana that they were cruelly oppressive. The slightest show of dissent from the mourners was treated as strange and offensive.
It was, as Jonathan Freedland wrote:
‘… our collective moment of madness, the week when we somehow lost our grip.’
Police can rely on another weapon in their already large protest zone. The latest Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 is another tool, adding “noise-sensitive” provisions.
It gives the police the power to prevent public marches, public gatherings and individual protests:
‘…where it is reasonably believed that the noise they introduce is likely to lead to serious disruption to the activities of an ongoing organization in the area or to have a significant impact on people in the protest area.’
What disturbs the public in the law is also troubling. Police powers are given to arrest and prosecute people who are responsible for doing something that endangers or causes serious harm to the public knowingly or recklessly. This also includes social barriers ‘in the exercise or enjoyment of a right which may be exercised or enjoyed by the general public’.
The statute defines aggravated damages as follows:
‘…death, injury or disease; loss of, or damage to, property, or; Severe distress, irritation, severe disturbance or loss of support.’
While the level of mourning for the Queen’s death lacks the depth and malice shown in Diana’s death, those who wish to play with an alternative perspective have been singled out for their opposition. There are a good number who see little merit in the continuing Empire and express disapproval of the new occupier. Another anti-imperialist protester, holding a sign ‘He is not my king’ in a peaceful and dignified manner, was removed by the police in an incident that caused concern.
A protester in Edinburgh was also arrested for holding the spicier ‘Fuck imperialism, end the empire’ placard in front of St Giles Cathedral. According to a statement from the police spokesperson, he has been arrested “concerning a breach of the peace”. Conservative commentator Brendan O’Neill saw it differently, calling it ‘an eerie, almost medieval act of confinement’ and ‘an intolerable attack on freedom of speech’.
Although the Metropolitan police have started arresting more people persistenceas they like, if:
‘The public have an absolute right to protest and we have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary operation that is currently taking place.’
For those who believed in British specialism, this was disturbing. It disturbed University of East Anglia academic David Mead, who found it difficult to identify ‘what crimes could the protesters be committing by shouting “no my king” or “abolish the kingdom” as the royal casket procession moved through the streets’.
Mead asks a few questions. Was there threatening or abusive language that could cause harassment, alarm or distress within the meaning Public Administration Act? Apparently not. Were the songs or placards in question threatening or abusive? Again, the case never came together. Even public compensation for the trouble will fail.
Perhaps the only basis left was that vague power to take proportionate measures to prevent breaches of the peace. Even if there is no violence, the police may conclude that violence to a person or property may occur quickly. Better act before it’s too late.
This is not a satisfactory situation, showing, but again, that the Sceptred Isle cannot be counted as an unimpeded base of free speech and public dissent. ‘If the people are not allowed to speak quietly, if they offend, protest against the king’s proclamation,’ points out O’Neill, ‘so clearly our country is not as free as we thought’.
Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge graduate and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr. Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.
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