(Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images)
Sep 13, 2022
Free expression advocates in the United Kingdom are warning that law enforcement agents in the country appear ready to eliminate Britons' right to free speech as several arrests have been reported at events taking place during the 10-day nationwide mourning period following Queen Elizabeth II's death.
"As precious, if not more precious than the monarchy, is the real beautiful web of freedoms and civil liberties that we've built up here over centuries, and we'd be very wrong to begin to sacrifice those in this kind of moment."
Critics of the monarchy have been arrested, detained, forced to leave public areas, and intimidated by police officers in Scotland and London as Queen Elizabeth's coffin has traveled across the U.K., along with members of the royal family including King Charles III.
The first arrest was reportedly made in Oxford, where Symon Hill asked, "Who elected him?" as a proclamation officially naming Charles as his mother's successor was read. Hill reported that police officers placed him in handcuffs and eventually told him he'd been arrested under the "Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act 2022," which has been condemned by rights advocates.
Hill wrote that he was never "given a clear answer as to why I had been arrested," but was told his comments in Oxford could have led to "harassment or distress."
Ruth Smeeth of the Index on Censorship called arrests like Hill's "deeply concerning" and warned that the queen's death may be "used, by accident or design, to erode in any way the freedom of expression that citizens of this country enjoy."
"The fundamental right to freedom of expression, including the right to protest, is something to be protected regardless of circumstance," Smeeth told Bloomberg.
A demonstrator holding a handmade sign reading, "Not My King" was also filmed being led away by police from the Palace of Westminster in London on Monday, and climate campaigner and lawyer Paul Powlesland reported that he attracted negative attention from a police officer when he held up a blank sheet of paper in Parliament Square.
The officer warned Powlesland that if he wrote "Not My King" on the paper, he would be arrested under the Public Order Act "because someone might be offended."
\u201cA period of quiet mourning for the Queen is fine, but using that period to cement Charles Accession as King & cracking down on any dissent to the accession as disrespectful is outrageous.\u201d— Paul Powlesland (@Paul Powlesland) 1662997173
"I believe actually as precious, if not more precious than the monarchy, is the real beautiful web of freedoms and civil liberties that we've built up here over centuries, and we'd be very wrong to begin to sacrifice those in this kind of moment," Powlesland told "Good Morning Britain" on Tuesday, adding that he protested only to make a statement about freedom of speech, but the police response to critics of the monarchy this week has pushed him to adopt an anti-monarchist view.
Member of Parliament and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called the arrest of anti-monarchy protesters "wrong, anti-democratic and an abuse of the law," while Zarah Sultana, another Labour MP, expressed shock that Britons' right to speak out against the monarchy is being debated.
In Edinburgh, a 22-year-old student named Mariangela was arrested after holding up a sign that read, "Fuck imperialism. Abolish monarchy" outside St. Giles Cathedral, where the queen's coffin lay before being taken to London.
Mariangela toldopenDemocracy that she was detained in a cell for nine hours and that the officers who were arrested later expressed "doubts over whether the arrest was lawful." She was nevertheless charged with "behavior likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm" under Scotland's Criminal Justice and Licensing Act 2010 and ordered to appear in court on September 30.
Police Scotland's actions were "clearly a violation of freedom of speech, which is supposed to be enshrined in the laws of the United Kingdom," she told openDemocracy. "If I'm not allowed to express my opinion, I don't see how that law is being observed."
Also in Edinburgh, videos posted on social media appeared to show a protester being removed from a crowd by officers and arrested after shouting, "You're a sick old man" at Prince Andrew. The prince has been accused of raping Virginia Giuffre, a woman who was allegedly sex-trafficked by financier Jeffrey Epstein. He has denied the accusation but paid a settlement to Giuffre earlier this year.
"Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a fundamental right," Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at civil liberties group Liberty, told Bloomberg. "Being able to choose what, how, and when we protest is a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy."
"Whoever you are, whatever your cause, it is vital you are able to stand up for what you believe in without facing the risk of criminalization," Beck added. "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."
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