Is student protest free speech or not?

You might remember that back in March we took a look at the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill from a student protest perspective.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

At the time we concluded that it wasn’t particularly compatible with a “we’re in favour of free speech” position.

Well guess what. The government has made it even worse!

Initially it was paused in the last Parliamentary session amid an outcry over Police handling of protests over the Sarah Everard case. But when it returned in this session, various of the powers had actually been toughened up.

And then yesterday – and remember this is after the Bill has been through all of its stages in the Commons and had its second reading in the Lords – a suite of new amendments (see P18 onwards) were introduced and debated, with the entire Lords committee stage running from 4.07pm until 1.20am this morning!

The official line on the last-minute changes is that they are required as a response to the antics of Insulate Britain, but the government has form on introducing wide ranging powers to deal with a specific issue that end up being used on all sorts of other things.

Amendment 319C criminalises “wilful obstruction of a highway”, amendment 319D criminalises the obstruction of “major transport works” and amendment 319A creates an offence of “locking on” (basically anyone who attaches themselves to “a person, to an object or to land”- is holding hands included?).

You can see how it looks like it’s aimed at Insulate Britain, but could easily be used to crack down on all sorts of the student protests I’ve seen, taken part in or stewarded over the years. What’s the point in student demos or occupations that don’t involve some of the above?

These all, by the way, come with a potential 51 week prison sentence.

Probably the most worrying of the provisions introduces something called “serious disruption prevention orders” which if imposed would eradicate someone’s rights to freedom of speech and assembly and require those they were imposed on to “present themselves to a particular person at a particular place at… particular times on particular days”.

They could also be imposed on anyone convicted of a “protest-related offence” – which bear in mind includes causing “serious disruption” or a “public nuisance” – but amendment 342M.2.iii now also allows it to be imposed on people whose activities are “likely to result in serious disruption”. In other words, you do not even have to have been convicted. Just the whistle or the superglue in your pocket and you’re nicked, sunshine.

You can also be banned from using the internet to encourage people to “carry out activities related to a protest”, banned from possessing certain items, banned from being at a certain place, or or even banned from hanging out with certain people for up to two years!

A lot of these powers are similar to those in counter-terrorism legislation – and as such, as well as the powers and the way the police use them, the extent to which universities will be required or expected to assist with these provisions when it comes to their own students will be an issue to keep an eye on.

2 responses to “Is student protest free speech or not?

  1. As is becoming increasingly apparent, free speech is only acceptable if you are not a student. Or: accepting student status means you give up your right to free speech (in the government’s eyes).

  2. Tread carefully Jim, the recent censoriousness of the Wonkhe has been noted by former contributors that I know whom have been unpersoned and blocked from discussion, let he who is without sin cast the first stone…

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