Liberty, a civil rights group, expressed concern, saying in a statement: “It is deeply disturbing to see the police applying their broad powers in such a brutal and punitive way to suppress freedom of speech and expression. “.
CNN spoke to some of those who faced police action this week after publicly criticizing the royal family.
Symon Hill, from Oxford, was returning home from church at around 12.30pm on Sunday. The 45-year-old told CNN that downtown roads were cordoned off for a procession, making it difficult for him to get through the crowds. Realizing that King Charles III’s accession was about to be proclaimed by the local authorities, Hill decided to listen rather than push to return home.
“They started reading about Elizabeth II and expressing their grief for her death,” Hill said. “I certainly wouldn’t interrupt that. I’ve never intruded on an act of mourning. It’s not something I would ever do.”
But when King Charles was declared “our only lawful and rightful cork lord”, Hill said he shouted, “Who elected him?”
“Only the really close people could hear. A few people told me to shut up. I replied that a head of state is imposed without our consent”, which he found “difficult to digest”.
Hill said he was “flabbergasted” by what happened next, describing how he was pushed away by security guards. “Then the police came in, grabbed me, handcuffed me and put me in the back of a police van,” he said. “It had probably been no more than five minutes since I had shouted ‘who elected him? “”
Hill said once in the police van, he repeatedly asked officers what law he was being arrested under. “They didn’t seem very safe, which is quite worrying. Arbitrary arrest is definitely not something we should have in a democratic society.”
Hill said he was given conflicting reasons for his arrest, as police were unsure whether to take him into custody.
“After numerous police officers spoke to each other and to their superiors via their radios, the officer in the van with me told me that I would be arrested and taken home, but that I would be contacted and asked to give an interview. at a later date. He said I could still be charged with something. Even at this point, they had not answered my questions about the law under which I had been arrested.
Hill said officers told him on the way home that he had been arrested under the Policing, Crime, Punishment and Courts Act 2022, controversial legislation introduced this year that expands powers of the police to suppress demonstrations.
However, a statement from Thames Valley Police to CNN on Wednesday said Hill was arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which covers offenses causing “harassment, alarm or distress”. .
The confusion shows the uncertainty surrounding the right to free speech in the UK, after the 2022 Act “expanded[ed] the range of circumstances in which the police can impose conditions on a demonstration. Under Article 78 of the new law, protesters are prohibited from “intentionally or recklessly causing[e] public nuisance” – including causing “serious inconvenience”.
‘Where does it end?’
Speaking to CNN, Steve Peers, professor of EU law and human rights at the University of Essex, noted just how far-reaching these new police powers can be. “All you have to do is find one person – which wouldn’t be difficult in a crowd of people who were mainly paying homage to the Queen – to be offended by someone who is there to protest against the monarchy in her together.”
“You could also say that anyone holding up a sign that says ‘We love the monarchy’ is seriously annoying to someone who doesn’t love the monarch. Where does it end?”
Paul Powlesland, a London barrister, was at work on Monday when he saw media reports of protesters being arrested for expressing anti-monarchy views. “In these times when the consensus is so even, that’s when free speech is most at risk. I thought it was important to come down and take stock of free speech,” he told CNN.
Like Hill, Powlesland said he did not want to interrupt expressions of royal mourning. He did not go to Buckingham Palace, where people were paying their respects to the Queen. He instead went to Parliament Square, a traditional place of political protest in London, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
Powlesland stood alone and held a blank sheet of paper. A few minutes later, he said that “a policeman came and asked for my details. He said if I wrote ‘Not my king’ on it, I’d probably be arrested because it’s offensive under public order law”.
“I couldn’t risk writing anything on it because I couldn’t be arrested because I had to represent my client in court the next morning. This is the crucial point: even the threat of arrest has a very chilling effect on freedom of expression and the right to protest.”
CNN has asked the Metropolitan Police to confirm its position on those who express anti-monarchy views. The Met responded: ‘People have a right to free speech and we must balance the rights of protesters with those of others who wish to mourn and respect.’
“A dangerous precedent”
Meanwhile, in an isolated incident in the Scottish capital on Monday, a 22-year-old man was arrested “in connection with a breach of the peace on the Royal Mile”, British news agency PA Media reported.
Whether the police crack down using the powers of the Public Order Act 1986 or the recently established Policing, Crime, Punishment and Courts Act 2022, there are free speech concerns .
Liberty said in a statement to CNN: “The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has made it much harder for people to stand up for what they believe in without facing the risk of criminalization…As we l we’ve already seen this week, it stifles our freedom to protest and sets a dangerous precedent for the future.”