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Activism

Explained: Your right to protest and how to exercise it

Understanding your right to protest is key to being able to use it. Here’s The Big Issue’s guide.

With concern growing over government plans to restrict the right to protest, a number of groups are still exercising their rights and highlighting their causes.

From Extinction Rebellion and Kill the Bill to Sisters Uncut and Insulate Britain, activists are making their voices heard. And key to having the confidence to do so is knowing exactly where you stand.

What are your rights? How do you exercise them? And can the police restrict them?

Here’s The Big Issue’s guide on your right to protest and how to exercise it.

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Your basic rights to protest

Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantee your right to protest. They protect freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association.

These apply to public places – not to protesting on private property. But the right to protest is a fundamental right – and the actions of protesters have won marginalised groups rights over the years.

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right to protest
Protesters at a rally in London in February 2022. Image: Extinction Rebellion

What these rights mean in practice

In theory, these rights mean police must facilitate your protest, and even offer the press a good vantage point.

You don’t have to notify the police of a protest if it is a static protest. 

But you must give the police written notice a week before a protest if you are planning a march.

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How the police can restrict your right to protest

The ECHR rights are not absolute. Instead, they are known as qualified rights, so police can weigh them against other considerations, and can place restrictions on a protest for a number of reasons.

Police can place restrictions on a protest for the following reasons: 

  • Prevent serious damage to property 
  • Prevent serious disruption to the life of the community
  • Prevent serious public disorder
  • Prevent the intimidation of others

For example, a march going past a school at picking up time may face restrictions because it would cause serious disruption to the life of the community. Protests held during lockdown were often restricted on the basis of a threat to public health.

The passage of the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts act has granted police wider powers to restrict protests.

Protests can now have conditions placed on them if they are expected to cause serious disruption, and police can impose start and end times on protests.

The recent changes were described as “the biggest widening of police powers to impose restrictions on public protest that we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” by Chris Daw QC, a leading barrister and author.

Restrictions must be given in writing and can only be given by a senior officer, chief constable, commissioner, or assistant chief constable.

Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, told The Big Issue: “It’s important to stress that all of these possible conditions have to be considered in relation to our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

“The police have a duty to facilitate our right to protest. That balance is really vital.”

right to protest
Kill the Bill march in London, February 2022. Image: Extinction Rebellion

Your rights while at a protest

There are a few things you can do before a protest to ensure you’re well-prepared to exercise your rights and stay safe

Liberty advises leaving valuables at home, taking a spare phone if you have one, and taking water and snacks, notepad and pen to keep a note of any issues.

“You might be out for longer than you anticipate,” Beck said. “We saw with Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 that the police were using tactics such as kettling which kept people in a specific place until the police felt they could disperse protesters.

If there are conditions placed on the protest while it is ongoing, these must be communicated to the organisers and attendees. Make sure you’re listening out and paying attention to your surroundings.

What to do if you get arrested at a protest

Recent protests such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have seen activists getting arrested in large numbers – in large part because that’s an aim of the groups.

Although it is not likely you’ll be arrested at a protest, it is worth preparing anyway and knowing your rights. Make sure you have an emergency contact.

Legal observers, independent from police and protesters – monitor police and gather evidence during arrests. They’ll also monitor interactions between protesters and the police.

Bust cards, with information on your rights and possible solicitors you can call, may be handed out during a protest.

“The police should only arrest you if they’ve got a reason to. Before arresting you they should tell you why you’re being arrested, the offence and why it’s necessary to arrest you,” said Beck.

“You should be told the name of the officer and what police station you’re being taken to.”

A strip search should only be done by somebody of the same gender.

Beck added: “We always say don’t chat with officers while in a police car or van or when you’re being booked in a police station because anything that you say can be used against you.”

How your right to protest might be changing

Following high profile action by Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil, the government has been pushing through new laws to make it easier for police to crack down on protests.

The passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts act means police have the power to impose conditions on noise for marches, one-person protests, and public assemblies.

The House of Lords rejected the measures three times, but backed down to MPs. The government did, however, concede to reviewing the powers within two years.

A host of anti-protest measures thrown out by Lords are back as part of the Public Order Bill. These will limit the right to protest, including by creating new criminal offences.

“Locking on” will become a specific criminal offence, punishable by up to six months in prison.

A new offence of “interfering with key national infrastructure” will become an offence, punishable by up to a year in prison.

Serious Disruption Prevention Orders will be introduced if the bill passes, banning repeat offenders from attending protests.

The bill has been criticised for its harsh treatment of protesters. Barrister Adam Wagner told MPs it “criminalises peaceful protest in a way which has not been done before,” and “treats peaceful protest like knife crime or drug dealing or terrorism.”

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