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The Right to Protest: Freedom or Fallacy?

Recently, the news cycle has been awash with stories of “Kill the Bill” protests in large cities like London and Bristol. Depending on where you source your news from, these stories may focus on anything from the number of people arrested at these protests, to the breaking of COVID-19 regulations, to arson, to the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ itself. The purpose of this article is to break down what the piece of legislation means and why protestors feel that the uninfringed right to protest is something worth defending so vehemently.

The bill

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is a bill that aims to reform the laws surrounding large protests. According to the government fact sheet, it aims to ‘widen the range of conditions that the police can impose on static protests, to match existing police powers to impose conditions on marches’. This is a very aloof way of saying that the police gets more power to impose restrictions on how protests are conducted, including start and finish times as well as a maximum acceptable noise level.

While currently, a large scale protest can take place without conditions such as a noise limit, following the ratification of this bill, large scale protests will be restricted under the new regulations entitled ‘intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance’(see page 52). The offence of being a ‘public nuisance’ is something of an intangible concept which many believe could lead to an infringement of their rights. The bill notes that “an act or omission causes serious harm to a person if, as a result, the person (c) suffers serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity, or (d) is put at risk of suffering anything mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c).”

The wording of this passage is potentially problematic and may be a much larger problem than a first reading would reveal. The words ‘distress’, ‘annoyance’, and ‘inconvenience’ are all relative terms. What distresses, annoys, or inconveniences me will be different to what distresses, annoys or inconveniences you. Moreover, to have committed an offence under this ordnance, you do not even have to have caused these reactions, someone just needs to feel ‘at risk of suffering anything mentioned’. Essentially, this gives the police nearly unlimited power to disperse or arrest those people that they deem to be a public nuisance, based on relative terminology. If for example, a member of the public was not of the opinion of protestors, they would be in their right to feel annoyed by the protest and insist that the police do something to stop their ‘serious annoyance’. Essentially, this new bill will massively obstruct the publicly held right to protest.

The right to protest

Article 11 of The Human Rights Act 1998 states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests’. This article forms the basis of the right to peaceful protest. In essence, it guarantees everyone the ability to come together and peacefully demonstrate that they do not agree with something. This is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and a human right noted in both The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20) and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 11). The importance of the word ‘peacefully’ should not be underestimated in this context, as these rights do not extend to violent protest.

The problem

The issue which is so passionately being demonstrated across the country is that the new bill does not sit well within the framework of the right to protest. It is legislation like the new bill that spiralled out of control in the 20th century and steadily grew into some of the most oppressive regimes ever known. It is for this reason that nipping this bill in the bud is important for the longevity of fundamental freedoms. This legal piece would most certainly limit the powers of protestors and widen the powers of the police by a significant distance. By wording it in this particular way, the Home Office has intuitively generated a cleavage between “good protestors” and “bad protestors”. I am confident that the government would love all politically motivated protestors to keep quiet, go home when they’re told, keep the streets clear and act in an orderly manner which befits a “good protestor”. Unfortunately for the government, protesting in this way would defeat the object. The point of protest is to raise awareness, generate change, and spread a message. You cannot do these things if you act obediently, keep the noise down and go home when you are told to. The point of protesting is to be noticed, to let people take you seriously and to make a scene that will be remembered. No politician has ever changed their policy because their inbox told them to. They changed it because people on the street showed them that it was the wrong decision. Unfortunately, a small number of individuals have clearly gone too far in their condemnation of this particular piece of legislation, and this article is by no means an endorsement of their actions. Neither the right to peacefully protest nor any other piece of legislation justifies the violence that has been seen across the country, and this is something that should be kept in mind if you are thinking of protesting yourself.

In any case, setting alight police cars and throwing projectiles is not helping this cause. The way to convince lawmakers that the right to protest is sacred is not by abusing that same right and endangering the lives of public servants. Those who do so undermine their own cause and jeopardise the chances of others to create a free, fair, and healthy democracy for all.

Written by Isaac Knowles

Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


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