Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8e, the United Kingdom held proclamation ceremonies across the country to officially declare Charles III King. Anti-monarchy protesters have since had numerous hostile encounters with police. Democracy, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are all under threat.
“It’s critical that you can stand up for what you believe in without risking being criminalized,” said Jodie Beck, head of policy and campaigning at Liberty. “It is very disturbing to see the police applying their broad powers in such a brutal and punitive way to curb freedom of speech and expression.”
“In times of national mourning, we all need to make sure we behave with respect,” Conservative Party member David Davis tweeted. “But,” he stressed, “we must not sacrifice the principle of free speech on which modern Britain is built.”
Davis identifies as a monarchist, but it’s clear that everyone, regardless of their views, should have the right to protest. Unfortunately, this is a right that the UK has failed to respect. For some, including Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer, the right to protest is seemingly outweighed by protesters’ responsibility to ‘respect’ those who mourn the Queen, so as not to ‘spoil’ those people’s experience by grief.
While this may seem like a reasonable caveat to free speech, critics point to how monarchists have pushed the claim in order to justify restricting people’s freedoms. For example, a lawyer went viral after being questioned by an officer for holding up a blank sheet of paper in Parliament Square.
The Treason Felony Act of 1848 criminalizing acts intended to deprive the British sovereign of the “royal name of the imperial crown” is clearly not enforced, but it was never formally abolished either.
“The fundamental right to demonstrate 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 shouldn’t be able to censor opinions it doesn’t like. Britain’s Public Order Act 1986, widely seen as a vague and unnecessary law, gives the police the power to decide what constitutes a public disorder. Another law, passed in 2010, gives the police the power to arrest those who exhibit behavior “likely to cause fear or concern to a reasonable person”. Police Scotland used the law to justify the arrest of a 22-year-old woman for ‘breach of the peace’ because she was seen holding a sign saying ‘F*** imperialism, abolish the monarchy’ . The woman is due to appear in Edinburgh Sheriff’s Court in two days.
A protester, arrested in Oxford, called the experiment “an outrageous assault on democracy”.
New provisions affecting the rights of protesters came into force on June 28e. A controversial new law known as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed in April, gives a new definition of disruption – including a “noise” trigger, meaning the more support a protest has, the more likely she is to receive restrictions. The law also introduced new, tougher penalties for protesters.
Many supporters of the monarchy (members of the House of Lords and Commons) have helped voice 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 denied the right to protest. Giving the police effective power to deprive anyone in the UK of this right sets a dangerous precedent: how many more inalienable rights will be co-opted?