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Wednesday, October 20, 1999 Published at 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK


When does protest become illegal?

Three were arrested as a result of protesting on Tuesday

If you took part in any march to do with refugees in Dover, you would be breaking the law.

If you wanted to protest against a fox hunt, or film it on land which did not belong to you, you would be likely to break the law.

And of course, some of those demonstrating against the visit to Britain of Chinese president Jiang Zemin on Tuesday, also fell foul of the law.

Three protesters were arrested as the president and the Queen made the ceremonial drive from Horse Guards to Buckingham Palace. Earlier, immediately prior to his arrival, 50 demonstrators had been moved out of view.

And over in Downing Street, members of Falun Gong meditating and performing slow exercises in protest at the religious group's banning in China, were watched by half a dozen police officers.

But why?

Britain is a democratic country, where freedom of expression - including freedom to protest peacefully - is taken for granted.

Editor of the Journal of Civil Liberties, senior lecturer in law at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, Alan Davenport, told BBC News Online that the situation in the UK is one where "protest is governed by police decision".

"That decision can be exercised at any time - so even if a protest march, for example, is going peacefully and according to plan, the police can decide half way through that everyone has to go home, and if they don't, they could be breaking the law," he said.

[ image: Marches about anything to do with refugees in Dover were temporarily banned]
Marches about anything to do with refugees in Dover were temporarily banned
The legislation used to arrest the Jiang Zemin protestors, and move some of the others along, came under the Royal Parks regulations, which restrict activities in those areas.

But generally, there are three main areas of legislation used to control protests and assembly.

The Public Order Act of 1986, section 14, allows senior police officers to impose conditions on public assemblies, specifically to do with the numbers taking part, and the location and duration of the protest.

More specifically still, it states that if a chief of police reasonably believes that an assembly is intended to be held outdoors and "a building or monument on it is of historical, archaeological, architectural or scientific importance" then it can be banned if there is any chance that the monument might sustain significant damage.

"It doesn't take a lot of working out that that has particular implications for people who want to congregate at Stonehenge," said Mr Davenport.

People have in fact been arrested for taking part in peaceful protest in the vicinity of the standing stones because there was a banning order in force.

Section 13 of this act gives police some powers over moving demonstrations or marches.

The Criminal Justice Public Order Act of 1994 brought trespass under the auspices of criminal, rather than civil law, with the introduction of a new offence: aggravated trespass.

The law can be applied to public or common land, and has implications for activities including:

  • picketing a workplace
  • demonstrating in the precincts of a public facility - eg, a school, hospital, library, university, town hall
  • leafleting outside a shop to protest, for example, about sales of non-dolphin friendly tuna
  • disrupting motorway building

    The right to roam and the "right to party" are also affected by this piece of legislation.

    [ image: Buildings and monuments receive special attention]
    Buildings and monuments receive special attention
    Under it, police officers have the power to order people to leave private land if damage has occurred. The Edinburgh Freedom Network's website reports that courts have already ruled that walking across a field constitutes "damage to land".

    In the case of outdoor parties or raves, police have the power to prevent events where amplified music is played, even if the landowner has given permission for the party to take place.

    Common Law Breach of the Peace can also be used by police officers to arrest and move on protesters.

    Mr Davenport said breach of the peace was often used to arrest hunt saboteurs, and has been used to arrest members of picket lines.

    He said that although you couldn't really be charged under common law for breach of the peace, you can be charged with obstructing a police officer.

    "This was used in the 1984 miners' strike, for example. Some of the miners who wanted to picket were arrested and charged with obstructing a police officer and ended up with criminal records."

    The decision to ban or place restrictions on a particular gathering or protest was almost entirely in the hands of the police, he said.

    'It isn't democratic'

    "In Newcastle we had a big demonstration by the Countryside Alliance, and the police here obviously took the view that it did not pose any kind of threat to public order.

    "That kind of decision will differ from police authority to police authority - so you will get situations occurring in Manchester, say, that might not happen in London, or vice versa.

    "It isn't democratic, and the visit of Jiang Zemin ought to raise this issue with the public. In practice, people don't tend to be interested until they need to protest about something which directly affects their lives."

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