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Activism

Explained: This is your right to protest and how police can restrict it

As anti-monarchy protesters are arrested after the Queen’s death, this is what your right to protest means and when police can restrict it

The arrests of anti-monarchy protesters in the wake of the Queen’s death has sparked a conversation over the right to protest in the UK.

Police arrested protesters in Scotland, including one who held a sign saying “Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy”, as well as a man in Oxford who shouted “Who elected him?” during the a ceremony marking the proclamation of King Charles III.

Amid controversy over the events, the Met Police insisted that “the public absolutely have a right to protest” – but the arrests raised questions over whether the actions were justified, and if and when police are able to restrict the right to protest.

So 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.

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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.

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.

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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

How the Public Order act impacts your right to protest

Several arrests seen in the wake of the Queen’s passing have been justified under the Public Order act, a 1986 piece of legislation not to be confused with a new bill the government is planning.

Thames Valley Police said this law was used to arrest Symon Hill, the man who shouted “who elected him?”. Specifically, they said he had been arrested under section five of the act, which prohibits disorderly behaviour.

The implications of this law for protest are obvious – but it doesn’t grant the police blanket powers.

In Scotland, breach of the peace is an offence under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) act 2010. This was the law cited by police after the arrest and subsequent charging of a woman outside St Giles Cathedral, who held an anti-monarchy sign.

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Tom Wainwright, a barrister specialising in protest law, says disorderly conduct must be “severe enough to cause alarm – or threaten a serious disturbance, or have used threatening or abusive behaviour intending to cause fear or alarm”.

And while holding a sign with bad language may be offensive, it’s balanced by the right to freedom of speech.

Your rights while at a protest

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

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.

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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