King Charles' Coronation arrests: Freedom of speech does not mean protesters can disrupt public events – John McLellan

Those complaining about Coronation arrests need to be consistent

Amongst the 18 rights and freedoms of the European Convention on Human Rights you won’t find the right to be offensive or to ruin someone’s day. Free expression and assembly are as far as it goes.

Article 10 specifies the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”, and Article 11 the “freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others”. Both, however, carry the important caveat that these rights can be restricted “for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals” or, crucially, “for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”. In other words, there’s no absolute right to do what the hell you want.

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It also means that understanding freedom of expression tends to become a pick’n’mix of opinions much depending on the standpoint of the beholder, and the inconsistencies have been on full display as arguments rage about the Metropolitan Police’s arrests of anti-monarchy and environmental activists on the morning of the Coronation, with a magnified repeat of the anger which followed the arrests in Edinburgh as the late Queen’s funeral cortege went up the High Street to lie in state in St Giles Cathedral.

Not all the anti-monarchist protesters were arrested as King Charles and Queen Camilla were crowned (Picture: Gareth Fuller/WPA pool/Getty Images)Not all the anti-monarchist protesters were arrested as King Charles and Queen Camilla were crowned (Picture: Gareth Fuller/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Not all the anti-monarchist protesters were arrested as King Charles and Queen Camilla were crowned (Picture: Gareth Fuller/WPA pool/Getty Images)

The obvious moral clash is whether the right to voice disapproval of, and at, the monarchy trumps the right of those to pay respects or enjoy the spectacle, free of goading. Does the right to peaceful protest include the right to provoke others to the point of violent reaction, as it did in Edinburgh last September? On that occasion, both the man who heckled Prince Andrew as he walked behind his mother’s coffin and those who dragged him to the ground were arrested, but is the definition of non-violent entirely reliant on no one being punched by a protestor? If, as police are briefing, there were fears rape alarms might be used to spook the horses, is it truly non-violent if the outcome of the action could be catastrophic injury to riders unseated onto hard tarmac, or a scared horse running into a dense crowd? I would argue not.

Can a protest be genuinely considered peaceful when the tactics are clearly aggressive, even if passive, like stopping people getting to work by gluing yourself to the road because you don’t like North Sea oil? It’s not even clear if shouting in someone’s face for political purposes is a criminal offence after Sean Clerkin, the scourge of Labour and now the SNP, who had a nose-to-nose confrontation with Labour MP Jim Murphy in 2015, was found not proven on a charge of behaving in a threatening or abusive manner.

What was noticeable after this weekend’s arrests, however, was the predictable SNP pile-on ─ “outrageous”, said Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard, “utter disgrace”, according to Chris Law MP, and "deeply disturbing", said Westminster leader Stephen Flynn ─ was not reflected in similar concern at the allegedly unlawful cancellation of Joanna Cherry MP’s appearance at The Stand comedy club this August because of her gender-critical views.

Last week, Mr Sheppard, The Stand’s founder who, along with actor and comedian Miles Jupp, remains a director of Salt'n'Sauce Promotions, which runs the club, was silent, and Culture Secretary Angus Robertson dodged the question. At least First Minister Humza Yousaf said he hoped a compromise could be found to allow Ms Cherry to appear, but that’s hardly a robust defence of freedom of expression.

At risk of descending into whitabootery, there is also the highly contentious issue of vigils outside sexual health clinics in which pro-life campaigners with strong religious beliefs hope women considering pregnancy terminations will not go ahead. They are as earnest in their belief they are trying to save lives as any Just Stop Oil activist, yet the same people who support extreme disruption by environmental campaigners, even if there is a threat to life by blocking emergency vehicles, want non-confrontational vigils moved to so far from clinics that they become pointless.

Some who felt it was unacceptable to arrest anti-Royal protests as the Queen’s coffin was brought into St Giles, including a woman waving a placard saying “F*** imperialism”, were happy to endorse pro-choice demonstrations outside the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre in central Edinburgh which included a sign saying, “Bye baby”.

There is a very strong argument that no one should be made to feel uncomfortable when accessing health services, and the ECHR caveat on the protection of health must cover mental well-being too – the impact of someone waving a “Bye Baby” sign near someone who might be seeking an abortion shouldn’t need explanation – but if you are happy for one lot of protestors to be moved along because of their effect on others then to be truly consistent your view should apply across the board.

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Despite the arrests, the weekend’s coverage showed a significant anti-monarchy protest did take place in London as the Royal procession went by, just not in a manner that disrupted the parade. Police facilitation for such demonstrations, as much for the participants’ protection as anything else, indicates the UK is far from “sleepwalking into fascism” as some more excitable observers have been suggesting. Last summer, Police Scotland allowed protestors to abuse and spit at Conservatives as they attended the party leadership hustings in Perth, which the previous First Minister failed to condemn.

Here, anyone of a monarchist disposition was likely to be in front of a television on Saturday and not amongst the estimated 15,000 who marched through Glasgow on the All Under One Banner Scottish republican alternative to the Coronation, or up Calton Hill for the rather bedraggled-looking Edinburgh version. When Celtic supporters can happily unfurl a banner which says “F*** the King”, it doesn’t feel like the boots of Cavalier repression are being stamped on anyone’s throat. But if true freedom of expression depends on what you represent, that’s dangerous.



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