October 02 2023

‘Writing “Not My King” on a sign should not constitute an offence’

‘Writing “Not My King” on a sign should not constitute an offence’

Police have faced significant criticism over their handling of anti-monarchist protests in the events following the death of the Queen. Edinburgh had three arrests, with a fourth occurring in Oxford, while Parliament seeing police confronting Paul Powlesland for holding a blank sheet of paper.

Powlesland, a barrister with Garden Court Chambers, whose confrontation with police was posted on twitter, commented in an interview that ‘freedom of expression and believe it’s one of our most precious rights… it’s in these moments of dare I say national consensus where that kind of right can slip and be in most danger’.

The Metropolitan Police issued a statement, saying: ‘The public absolutely have a right to protest and we have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation.’ Neither Police Scotland nor Thames Valley Police have commented beyond confirming the above arrests.

Criticism has been levelled against the police from several quarters. Liberty, the Human Rights campaign group, said ‘it is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression… Protest isn’t a gift from the State. It’s a fundamental right.’

The human rights charity JUSTICE, stated: ‘these arrests are unacceptable. The European Convention on Human Rights protects opinions that “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”; holding up a blank sign or expressing republican views clearly should not constitute an offence.’

The Secret Barrister, an anonymous criminal lawyer, commented that writing ‘Not My King’ on a sign ‘would not constitute an offence under the Public Order Act, and it is deeply troubling that any police officer would think that it might’.

Criticism has also come from within Westminster. David Davis MP, the former Conservative cabinet minister, wrote to Police Scotland after the first protestor was charged, stating that ‘a liberal approach would be desirable’. He further commented that ‘we must not sacrifice the principle of free speech upon which modern Britain is built. I am a staunch monarchist, but republicans have as much right to voice their opinions as anyone else’. Meanwhile, Zara Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, commented: ‘No-one should be arrested for just expressing republican views. Extraordinary – and shocking – that this needs saying.’

The Index on Censorship commented that it is ‘deeply concerning to see the arrests being made. The fundamental right to freedom of expression, including the right to protest, is something to be protected regardless of circumstance. These arrests come at a time of national debate around the new Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act covering England and Wales, legislation that Index raised serious concerns about during its passage through Parliament’.

At least one of these arrests took place under the auspices of Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 which criminalised protests which merely entailed a risk of causing ‘serious distress, annoyance, inconvenience or loss of amenity’. It also made it an offence for a protest to generate noise which ‘may result in serious disruption’. These can apply both to organised group protests and individuals.

The new Policing Act was subject to significant criticism both before and after it was passed from, amongst others,a former home secretary, heads of police, and parliament’s own joint committee on human rights, which decried the bill as ‘oppressive and wrong’.

Following on the heels of the PCSC Act, the previous Home Secretary, Priti Patel, sponsored a further bill impeding the right to protest. The Public Order Bill is designed to deal with protestors who disrupt transport and infrastructure, as well as criminalising ‘locking-on’. Joanna Cherry KC described the proposals  as a “blunderbuss… putting protected rights at risk”. The Public Order Bill has passed its second reading and is at report stage.