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Arrested for holding a sign: what rights do protesters have?

As His Majesty King Charles III started his duties as King, huge crowds came out to welcome him but there were also a few anti-monarchy protesters. During the 10 days of mourning including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, there were multiple arrests of protesters peacefully protesting with signs stating “abolish the monarchy”. Our Policing and Criminology experts has been looking into what right protesters have.

Before the Queen’s funeral, the Metropolitan police said they would only intervene in anti-monarchy protesting if necessary. However, there were arrests or threats of peaceful protesters with placards in London, Edinburgh and Oxford.

One woman was removed from parliament for holding up a sign which said Not My King and another who held a sign which stated “abolish the monarchy” was charged with breaching the peace. In London a barrister filmed himself being threatened with arrest for writing “Not my king” on a piece of paper and a man in Oxford was handcuffed for asking “who elected him?” during a proclamation ceremony for King Charles III.

Police Officer and Policing tutor at The University of Law Leeds campus, Elizabeth Beck said: “Holding up the placard saying Abolish the Monarchy  is, in isolation, not an inherently unlawful act. It is an expression of a political viewpoint which we, in this country, are allowed to do.

“Police Officers who encounter placards or slogans containing obscene language have to assess the impact of such language on other members of the public, the impact of intervening and the impact of not intervening. A keyword relating to these offences is context.

“As said by Sir Keir Starmer, persons expressing their views ought to choose their time and place carefully and express their opinions and views with respect.”

Ken Marsh Chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation said in a statement “it was clear that some of my colleagues weren’t aware what people can and can’t do in terms of holding up pieces of paper.”

Protesting is a right under Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights which provides freedom of assembly as well as Article 10 which provides Freedom of expression. This means every individual has the right to protest, march or demonstrate in a public space. Under this law, police have a duty to protect this right.

In June this year the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into effect, with changes to protesters’ rights and police sanctions. The new act has changed the meanings and definitions of police rights to arrest. Under the new act, the definition of Disruption has widened to cover more areas; it used to just be public disorder, damage to the community and damage to property. Now however it has extended to noise control, delaying of delivery of time-sensitive products and prolonged disruption of access to any essential goods.

On the UK Gov website it states under the new Act that the police can stop a protest if it is too loud “allowing officers to set conditions to prevent the noise generated by the protest in question having a significant impact on people” followed by “this measure has nothing to do with the content of the noise generated by a protest, just the level of the noise.”

Measures were put into place to prevent mass gatherings during Covid-19 giving police new powers when it comes to protesting. Under Corona Virus Act 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations Act 2020, police can disperse of a big group and direct an individual to go home.

The Liberty Human Rights website states: “The new wording gives the police very broad powers to decide what amounts to “serious disruption”. As a result, people are now at greater risk of being caught by the new definition and being subject to police conditions, which limits the freedom to protest.”

In addition to new changes of the definitions and what they cover, there has also been significant changes to the penalties. Fines for protesters who breach any restrictions made by the police may receive a fine of up to £2,500 under the new Act, £1,500 more than the previous maximum fine of £1,000 for the same breach.

Organisation Big Brother Watch has stated that since this new act has come into place, there has been  a significant increase in stop and searches of protesters in London.

Big Brother Watch analysed stop and search data for central London, for the summers of 2020 and 2021. On an average weekend with protests, the number of stop and searches rose 20.5% above weekends without protests. “Our research shows an alarming pattern of police disproportionately using existing powers to deliberately target people exercising their right to protest” Big Brother Watch states on their website.

With the recent Acts, there may be an increase in kettling, a tactic used by police where police surround the protesters. ULaw’s police tutor Elizabeth Beck explains: “Protesters’ movements within a kettle are entirely controlled by the officers performing the tactic: it is normally used to ensure a timely and safe movement of protesters from one area to another. It is designed to physically prevent protesters from breaking out from the identified group and, also, to prevent anyone from breaking into the group.

“It is considered a high degree of force exerted by police officers in the physical movement of protesters. Therefore, the decision to kettle is never taken lightly and a highly trained and specialised senior ranking officer will authorise the use of such a technique.”