Since Queen Elizabeth II’s death on September 8th, the United Kingdom has held proclamation ceremonies across the country to officially declare Charles III king. Protestors against the monarchy have since had numerous hostile encounters with police. Democracy, freedom of speech, and the right to peaceful protest are all under threat.
“It is vital you are able to stand up for what you believe in without facing the risk of criminalization,” Jodie Beck, the policy and campaign’s officer at Liberty, said. “It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to damp down on free speech and expression.”
“At a time of national mourning, we should all ensure that we behave respectfully,” senior Conservative party-member David Davis tweeted. “But,” he emphasized, “we must not sacrifice the principle of free speech upon which modern Britain is built.”
Davis identifies himself as a monarchist, but is clear that everyone, regardless of views, should have the right to protest. Unfortunately, this is a right that the United Kingdom has not respected. For some, including Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, the right to protest is seemingly outweighed by protestors’ responsibility to “respect” people mourning the Queen, so as to not “ruin” those mourners’ experience.
While this may seem to be a reasonable caveat to free speech, detractors point out just how far monarchists have stretched the claim in order to justify restricting people’s liberties. For example, a barrister went viral after he was questioned by an officer for holding up a blank piece of paper in Parliament Square.
The Treason Felony Act of 1848 criminalizing acts intended to deprive the British sovereign from the “royal name of the Imperial Crown” is clearly not being enforced, but it was never officially abolished, either.
“The fundamental right to protest remains the keystone of our democracy,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said in a statement. But a nation that prides itself on being a democracy should not be able to censor opinions it doesn’t like. Britain’s Public Order Act of 1986, widely regarded as a vague and unhelpful statute, gives police the authority to decide what constitutes public disorder. Another law, passed in 2010, gives police the authority to arrest those displaying behaviour “likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm.” Police Scotland used this law to justify arresting a 22-year-old woman for “breaching the peace” because she had been seen holding a sign saying “F*** imperialism, abolish the monarchy.” The woman is expected to appear at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in two days.
One demonstrator, arrested in Oxford, called the experience an “outrageous assault on democracy.”
Further provisions affecting protestors’ rights came into effect on June 28th. A controversial new act known as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed in April, gives a new definition of disruption – including a “noise” trigger, meaning that the more support a protest has, the more likely it is to receive restrictions. The act also introduced new and harsher penalties on protestors.
Many supporters of the monarchy (members of the House of Lords and Commons alike) have been instrumental in expressing how “un-British” it is to detain and censor someone for Republican sentiments. Recent events have shown how disconcerting it is for citizens of dictator states to be deprived of the right to protest. Giving police the effective authority to deprive anyone in the U.K. of that right sets a dangerous precedent: how many more inalienable rights will be co-opted?
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