Suppression of anti-royal protests in Britain

The arrests of anti-monarchy protesters in the UK have raised concerns about freedom of expression, writes Dr. Binoy Kampmark.

THE RIGHT TO PROTEST, fragile and meekly protected by the judiciary in the tradition of British common law, didn’t really have much force until European law upheld it. In Britain it is common to condemn other countries for suppressing the right to protest.

So it came with some unpleasant surprise – at least for some speaking minds – that people were arrested for protesting against the monarchy after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Such a surprise is out of place. In the UK, protesters can be marched off before the police’s sweeping and vague discretionary powers are exercised. An old, age-old favorite is the breach of the peace, something that some blue-robed officer needs to see in any gathering of people.

In addition to this general power available to the police, the Public Order Act 1986 The UK also covers public order offences. Section 5 enumerates cases in which a person has been guilty of such crimes, where “they use threatening or offensive words or behavior or disorderly behavior or disorderly behavior” or show “Any writing, character or visual representation that is threatening or abusive”.

An additional, emotional component is also added to the legislation. Such behavior should take place “within hearing or sight of any person who is likely to be bothered, alarmed or distressed”. In times of government-declared mourning, the abuse of such language is almost limitless, despite the inaccurate defense of the “reasonable charge” available to the accused party.

It is precisely with such a wording that protest suppression can take place relatively easily. The conditions of mourning were so perfect after Princess Diana’s death that they were incredibly depressing. The slightest disagreement with the mourners was treated as abnormal and offensive.

It was as Jonathan Freedland wrote:

‘…our collective moment of madness, a week in which we kind of lost our footing.’

Police can count on just one more weapon in their already vast arsenal to quell protests. The newest Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 is another instrument that adds “noise-related” provisions.

It grants police powers to limit public processions, public gatherings and one-person protests:

“…when it can reasonably be assumed that the noise they generate may cause serious disruption to the activities of an organization taking place nearby, or have a significant impact on people in the vicinity of the protest.”

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The element of public harassment in the legislation is also troubling. Police powers are granted to enable the arrest and prosecution of anyone who knowingly or recklessly does anything that endangers or causes serious harm to the public. This also applies to obstructions to the public “in the exercise or enjoyment of any right which may be exercised or enjoyed by the general public”.

Legislation defines serious damage as:

“…death, personal injury or illness; loss of or damage to property or; serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or loss of convenience.

While mourning the Queen’s death lacked the intense and grotesque delicacy displayed at Diana’s death, those who wished to hold a different view were also singled out for their dissent. There are a good number who see little merit in the continued existence of the monarchy and have expressed their opposition to the new occupier. An anti-royal protester holding the sign “Not My King” peaceful and dignified, has been removed by police in an incident that gave rise to concern.

A protester in Edinburgh was also arrested for holding up something spicier “Fuck imperialism, abolish the monarchy” Poster outside St Giles Cathedral. According to a police spokeswoman, the arrest was made “In connection with a breach of the peace”. Conservative commentator Brendan O’Neill saw it differently and called it “an alarming, almost medieval act of censorship” and “an intolerable attack on freedom of expression”.

Despite initiating a series of arrests, the Metropolitan Police insistedas they tend to:

“The public has absolutely every right to protest and we have made this clear to all officials involved in the extraordinary operation currently taking place.”

For those who believed in Britain’s state of emergency, this was unsettling. It worried University of East Anglia academic David Mead, who found it difficult to identify “What crimes could protesters have committed by shouting ‘not my king’ or ‘abolish the monarchy’ as the royal procession of coffins made its way through the streets”.

Mead asks some questions. Was there any threatening or offensive language likely to cause harassment, distress or distress within the meaning of Public Order Law? Apparently not. Were the chants or posters in question threatening or offensive? Again the case didn’t stack up. Even charges of public harassment would not apply.

Perhaps all that remained was the unclear authority to take proportionate measures to prevent breaches of the peace. Even without the use of force, the police could still determine that violence against a person or property may be imminent. It’s best to intervene before it’s too late.

This is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs, showing once again that the Isle of Scepters can hardly be considered an impregnable bastion of freedom of expression and public dissent. “If men are not permitted to protest quietly, if offensively, against the proclamation of a king,” reflects O’Neill, “Then our country is clearly not as free as we thought”.

dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is a Lecturer at RMIT University. you can dr Follow Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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