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Restrictions on Protests are Undermining Democracy

Kira Lomas reports on the controversy surrounding the right to protest in the UK.

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Protests, large or small, have stretched across different generations, characterised by one common agenda: to express dissent towards an issue affecting society. These social movements are predominantly fronted by members of the public that, to some degree, feel marginalised in political policy.


Providing people with a legitimate means to voice their concerns and demand change, protests are fundamental to democracy. However, recent parliamentary discussions have seen protests of all kinds come under scrutiny. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a ban has been proposed that seeks to impose restrictions on ‘noisy’ protests, limiting freedom of speech and increasing penalties on people who breach the conditions.



Effects of the Ban

Over recent years, the nature of protests have led to controversy amongst police, local authorities and government officials. Measures have been employed by these groups to manage protests in terms of punishing behaviour deemed to cause unease, distress and alarm to people in the vicinity. This new piece of legislation aims to place rules on static protests, including imposing start and finish times, setting noise limits and applying these regulations to demonstrations by one person.

Implementing this ban will allow police to crackdown on acts of public nuisance, handing out fines of £2,500 to people who do not comply with the rules. Essentially, this bill will provide police significant power to decide the overall deliverance of protests – the when, how and where.

Recent events that have prompted this new call for a ban on noisy protests include the Extinction Rebellion Movement (2019), and last year’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests that saw the toppling of a statue of a Bristol slave trader. Ministers argue that these protests interfered with the lives of ordinary people, causing ‘serious annoyance, serious inconvenience and serious loss of amenity’ – offences that could warrant up to 10 years prison time.



An Issue of Basic Human Rights

Protests hold incredible amounts of social value and are inextricably linked to policy. Without them, the concerns of many citizens would go unaddressed and there would never be a chance to implement structural change. Yet bodies of power around the world have a tendency to treat protests as an inconvenience or a threat that needs to be diminished.

Opponents of the bill – including many Labour MP’s, members of the public and influential figures part of the Human Rights Committee – argue that its vague wording allows for any and all dissent to be quashed. This means that protests will fail to materialise, as police officers will be handed significant power to anticipate the impact of noise on the organisation facing backlash and thus render it ineffective.

Considered by these groups as an anti-democratic piece of legislation, these measures prevent people from holding the powerful to account and act as a means to silence and disempower minorities. ‘Kill the bill’ protests have been instigated in response to the recent legislation, defending freedom of speech, arguing that the law reads as a direct attack on ordinary people.


At the time of these protests, Avon and Somerset police put forth claims that sought to criminalise the protesters’ actions, asserting that officers endured ‘considerable levels of abuse and violence.’ However, further inspection reveals this to be untrue as Bristol’s police force admitted the falsity of their statements. This incident serves to impeach the legislation, highlighting possibility that it may have been informed by exaggerated evidence.


Protesting, whether to raise awareness about a perceived injustice or unite with like-minded people who feel passionate about a particular issue, helps to strengthen public influence and involvement in shaping society.


 

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