Police action against anti-monarchist protesters has come under the spotlight this week. On Sunday, a young woman was arrested in Edinburgh after holding up a sign with a swear word on it stating, “abolish monarchy”. She has now been charged with an offence and faces a hefty fine or even imprisonment. Her arrest followed an incident involving a protester in London who was led away by members of the Metropolitan Police after holding up a sign saying, “Not my King”. Another man in Oxford who shouted, “who elected him?” at a procession marking King Charles III was also arrested then de-arrested by officers.
Concerned about these incidents, one barrister decided to go to a London gathering with a large, blank piece of paper and see what happened. He was soon approached by an officer and asked for his details. After suggesting that he might write the words ‘not my king’ on the paper, the officer told him not to do so, or he’d be arrested for being ‘offensive’. Civil liberties groups in the UK have expressed alarm. Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of Index on Censorship, described the arrests as “deeply concerning”. And Silkie Carlo, of Big Brother Watch, said officers have a “duty to protect people’s right to protest” as much as “facilitate people’s right to express support, sorrow, or pay their respects”.
Their concerns are justified. The actions of some protesters are seen as disrespectful. As someone who admired the Queen, I thought the timing and nature of some protests was tasteless and immature. But this is beside the point. There has never been a democratic right not to be offended in the UK, and there cannot be such a right in a truly free society. Under various laws governing public order, police officers in the UK are empowered to arrest people who are inciting violence, behaving in a threatening or abusive manner, causing genuine fear, alarm, or distress to others, or risking serious disorder. Many fail to see how people holding anti-royalist signs reaches the threshold for police intervention.
As well as maintaining order and safety, police officers are duty-bound to respect and uphold civil liberties. To act as a dispassionate presence, upholding safety and free speech. They have a hard job and I sympathise with officers. But some actions against protesters appear heavy-handed. Where wrong calls were made, an apology should be issued. The case of the Edinburgh woman is particularly concerning. She is charged with a criminal offence – breach of the peace. A conviction will seriously affect her life. Her actions may have been ill-considered, but punishing her would be a stain on Scottish democracy, anchored in liberal ideals: free speech, free conscience, and free assembly.
In my mind, the events of recent days are symptomatic of an wider malaise affecting civil liberties in the UK. Free speech is often felt to be readily and overly restricted, and misunderstood. Police forces have been censured for pursuing citizens over so-called ‘hate incidents’, where no crime has been committed but offence – real or perceived – has been taken. Drawing red lines in this area has never been easy, but it’s even less so in modern Britain. In a context where officers are asked to deal with the subjective – hurt feelings – and enforce increasingly politicised legislation, it’s no wonder that they are confusing conduct that is offensive but legal with conduct that constitutes an actual offence.
The febrile political climate we inhabit today, and the intensely personal nature of certain societal debates, clouds their judgment still further. It is left to judges to correct errant decisions by plod, which they do. Thankfully, recent rulings on free speech and compelled speech show that the judiciary still hold a robust view of civil liberties. There is a cognitive dissonance in our society when it comes to free speech, and other rights founded upon this ‘Bulwark of liberty’. A re-examination and rediscovery of this vital freedom is required, for everyone’s benefit. We might not like what our neighbours say at times, but our society depends on tolerating others’ right to speak.