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It’s the government that’s about to have a chilling effect on student free speech and expression

Jim Dickinson reviews the threats to student protest posed by the Police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the big political controversies falling out of the London vigil for Sarah Everard is today’s second reading of the Police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.

The 296 page bill was only published last Tuesday yet covers a breathtaking range of issues – everything from collaboration between authorities to prevent and reduce serious violence to offensive weapons homicide reviews, provisions on the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles and some stuff on driving offences.

But it’s obviously the stuff on protest that has attracted particular attention over the weekend. Many have drawn comparisons in principle between the government’s apparent love of freedom of speech and the contents of the section on protest – but we thought we should have a quick look through the optic of student protest(s).

Chilling effect

It’s worth first reminding ourselves what ministers had to say in their Higher education: free speech and academic freedom policy document a few weeks back. There’s little in the document really about protest per se – so things like student demos and occupations are not really mentioned unless they are about someone else’s appearance or speech:

It is clear that individuals have the right to campaign against speakers, to protest peacefully, and to decide who they wish to share platforms with or indeed invite to speak. However, HEPs should be doing much more to challenge the climate in which these actions are seen as a standard response to encountering views that are seen by some to be controversial.

Para 40 reminds us that Parliament’s Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR) Freedom of Speech in Universities report addressed “disruptive protests”, framing them principally not as expressions of freedom but as restrictors of others’ freedom off the back of a tiny handful of cases.

The policy paper takes that ball and runs with it – arguing that barriers to free speech on campus “included violent protest” – although it is violence where its Para 54 draws the line:

While the right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct, intimidation, violence or threats of violence are a crime. HEPs should make clear that intimidation is unacceptable and show a zero tolerance approach to the perpetrators, applying strong sanctions and working with local police where appropriate to secure the right of the speakers to freedom of expression.

The framing of protest as being something that’s about others’ free speech continues in the “standards” part in Annex B:

The HEP recognises that the right to free speech includes the right to challenge or protest i.e. the right to disagree. The HEP does not impose restrictions or mitigations on an event, or cancel the event, simply because a protest against a particular speaker is planned. Conversely, the HEP does not allow the protest to prevent speech from being heard (for instance, by drowning it out) or to intimidate speakers or audience members.

Bills to pay

Anyway, to the bill itself. First of all, it amends the Public Order Act 1986 so that the police can impose conditions on protests that are noisy enough to cause “intimidation or harassment” or “serious unease, alarm or distress” to bystanders – including protests consisting of one person.

It would be fair to say that making a noise is a pretty common tactic on protests and demos, and characteristic of plenty of student demos that I’ve been on or attended. Build a bonfire…

More seriously, if that noise “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity” and for static assemblies and marches, if that noise “may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity […] and that impact is significant” the power kicks in.

Have I ever been on a student demo that didn’t seriously disrupt organisations on the route? I doubt it.

When organising an “assembly” in public, in the past the police could only impose the conditions that would alter the place at which an assembly could be held, its maximum duration or the maximum number of persons who constitute it. In the bill they would be able to impose any condition “as appears to him [the senior police officer] necessary”. That would mean the police could ban a static protest altogether.

I’ve been at plenty of those.

The common law offence of “public nuisance” gets replaced with a new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”. The notes accompanying the bill say the offence is supposed to target stuff like “hanging from bridges” but the wording of the offence is far wider and includes “any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public” or “that obstructs them in the exercise of rights belonging to the public.”

A person commits an offence if a person does something (or doesn’t do something) and as a result:

…obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large.

Have I ever been on a student demo that didn’t temporarily stop people enjoying a park or crossing a road? Not sure I have.

I find that offensive

Worse, a person commits an offence if a person does something (or doesn’t do something) and as a result causes “serious harm” to the public or a section of the public. The trouble is that “serious harm” can include both “serious annoyance” and “serious inconvenience”.

Would this 1970s Downing Street-based NUS giant cabbage stunt have “annoyed” and “inconvenienced” No.10 in quite a “serious” way? Probably.

The bill establishes an offence where someone breaches a police-imposed condition on a protest where they “ought to have known” the condition existed – which will place a huge burden on the organisers of protests (to do things like inform protestors of conditions), and on protestors themselves.

I can think of lots of non-SU or NUS organised student protests on which this would have a hugely chilling effect.

Finally, right now “trespass” is a civil law offence and the police have no powers to arrest offenders – but Part 4 of the Bill establishes a criminal offence for trespass and introduces new police powers to arrest offenders that are there, and seize property immediately.

That’s likely to make student occupations much harder within the law.

The atmosphere has changed

Most of this was written with Extinction Rebellion in mind – a group commanding considerably less public sympathy than those attending the Sarah Everard vigil at the weekend. On the assumption this gets through its second reading, it remains to be seen whether the bill as drafted will survive the scrutiny of the House of Lords.

But as drafted we’re looking at both real crackdowns on student protest and significant chilling effects – things that just weeks ago the government’s free speech proposals were supposed to be dismantling. At least Spiked! will be opposed.

7 responses to “It’s the government that’s about to have a chilling effect on student free speech and expression

  1. From the clearly biased reporting going on one might think what started as the Sarah Everard vigil wasn’t hijacked by others with a clearly different agenda. Indeed the narcissistic ER types seemed to be amongst those that turned a peaceful vigil into a Police bating protest, the Met started out with 90% female officers in attendance, several of whom were assaulted, leading to the rapid deployment of male officers and the ‘man-handling’ syndicated to the press photo’s. Using this as an example in an attempt to turn the debate away from ER and others might not be such a wise move?

    As to the right to protest, there are many who cannot protest now, those that are not from middle class university indoctrinated backgrounds especially so, that many University towns and cities have the same grooming gang problems that only the unmentionables ever protested about is unsurprising, that so many poor white children have been trafficked, gang raped, suffered abortions and we hear disappeared/murdered as well raises nary an eyebrow in ‘polite’ protesting middle class society is a much bigger issue.

    1. One might think that John, but one would have had to travel a long way down the road of unevidenced imagination to get there

    2. You’re literally just lying. We’ve all seen the pictures of the protest John. It was policed by predominantly male officers from word go, and it wasn’t ‘hijacked by people with an agenda’. It was a vigil and a demonstration to protest police violence – in this case murder by a police officer. There were also no assaults by women on police officers – the officers decided to brutalise protesters for embarrassing them.

      I’m sorry that women standing up for their rights offends you. But you needn’t resort to lies to justify your distaste for it.

    1. Hi Ray, the implication of the Hate Crime Bill will be that people will be unable to do hate crimes. Happy to help.

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