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A Regress in Freedom of Speech: The Public Order Bill

The importance of the right to protest cannot be ignored in today’s world. Injustices happen every day and we must remember the importance of protesting to enact change.


Recently, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Public Order Bill (2023) has suffered eight defeats in the House of Lords. This bill is intended to build on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (2022) to allow the police to better crack down on dangerous tactics used recently by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. The bill attempts to curb these actions as they cause serious disruption to the majority: they have brought roads to standstill, blocked emergency services, and diverted the police from other important matters — for example, in October 2022 alone, the Metropolitan Police made more than 650 arrests in relation to Just Stop Oil alone.


In an effort to reduce the negative effects of these drastic forms of protest, the Public Order Bill introduces a criminal offence to lock on — or to be equipped to lock on — to busy roads, buildings, or scaffolding as well as new criminal offences of tunnelling or being equipped to tunnel. Importantly, the bill also extends police stop and search powers and allows Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), which allow named individuals to be banned from protesting even if they have never been convicted.


When the bill reached the House of Lords in November 2022, it suffered eight defeats, with its fundamental opposition that it seems to dangerously restrict the right to protest. In debates, Labour peer Vernon Cooker outlined that the debate here comes from “a genuine attempt to address where the line should be drawn between the right to protest and the right of others to go about their daily lives.” Martha Spurrier, director of human rights group Liberty, described the proposals as "a desperate attempt to shut down any route for ordinary people to make their voices heard.” While the bill would supposedly stop these dangerous and often harmful protests, the truth remains that protests such as these have been what aid in the destruction of harmful laws and the reduction of the power of powerful leaders.


The Joint Committee on Human Rights stated that “while the stated intention behind the bill is to strengthen police powers to tackle dangerous and highly disruptive protest tactics, its measures go beyond this […] they pose an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest.” These seemingly draconian laws pose a very real threat to our right to protest, and history has further shown that protest groups are sophisticated and knowledgeable about their rights and will find another way to protest. As Lord Bishop of St Albans argues, the UK government has continuously given more powers to the police, and thus “it is hard to see how one more piece of legislation will be any more effective at reducing disruptive protests than the previous many pieces of legislation.”


Some in the House of Lords, such as Lord Coaker, argued against the bill on the grounds that we should instead look at existing laws and police powers in order to deal with serious disruptions; if blocking a road or defacing a piece of artwork are already crimes, why are additional restrictions on protesting needed? The bill’s proposal of allowing SDPO’s, Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker argued, “demonstrates our own impotence as legislators and the impotence of the police as law enforcers to get to grips with the laws already in place and to enforce them.” In previous protests, five Insulate Britain members were jailed for breaching M25 restrictions and the Just Stop Oil protestors who threw soup were charged. While one might argue that measures set out in the bill would prevent these harmful actions from occurring at all, these protestors clearly know the law and decide to commit these crimes anyway.


Also worrying is the proposed new stop and search powers outlined in the bill due to the clear adverse impact on ethnic minorities and other minority groups. This would allow for the police to stop and search someone without any suspicion if an officer believes that a protest may be committed. For some marginalised groups, this proposed legislation is particularly targeted: if you are black you are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police using “with suspicion” powers, and 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police using “without suspicion” powers than if you are white. Those who live or work near a possible protest site would then be unable to carry anything that might possibly implicate them if they are the subject of a random search, a suggestion with terrible consequences.


One interesting point to consider briefly is the recent Clause 9 amendment of the bill, which established buffer zones around abortion clinics where protesting is prohibited. While access to safe abortion is an important fundamental human right, it seems that we could see this clause as also being a serious restriction to the right to freedom of speech and protest.


These defeats make way for parliamentary ping-pong between the Lords and the Commons, as the bill continues to be passed between the two houses. However, these protesters are there for a reason as they campaign for their beliefs. While the defeats by the Lords mean some of the most extreme elements of the bill will be thrown out, other discriminatory and anti-protest measures can be reinserted into the bill when it returns to the House of Commons soon.


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