Protest rights

Liberty seeks legal clarity over protest threat

Posted on 17 Nov 2020

  • Liberty says banning protest would be “unlawful interference of fundamental rights”
  • Letter to Ministers calls for urgent clarity over lockdown laws
  • Restrictions follow long-term threats to protest rights, says Liberty

Liberty has called on the Government to urgently amend lockdown rules and clarify their purpose to ensure they do not effectively ban protests.

In a letter sent on Monday 16 November to Secretaries of State Matt Hancock and Priti Patel, Liberty’s legal team have said the Government must make clear that they have not tried to make protests illegal under current lockdown laws.

The Government brought new regulations into effect on 5 November to enforce England’s second coronavirus lockdown. Unlike previous regulations, these did not include an explicit protest exception in the ban on public gatherings.

Liberty has warned this is effectively a ban on protest and that the lockdown rules must be amended to include this exception.

In the letter, Liberty says that unless coronavirus rules are amended they risk being an “unlawful interference of fundamental rights.”

Liberty specifically calls for “the Regulations to be amended without delay to make provision … to allow for protests to take place during the Coronavirus pandemic.”

Liberty’s Interim Director Gracie Bradley said: “We should all be able to stand up for what we believe in – but current coronavirus rules pose a chilling threat to our right to protest.

“Liberty has always supported proportionate measures to protect lives, but people must not be criminalised for voicing opposition to the Government.

“While restrictions on sport, filming, schools and work are reduced, limits to protest have been increased. This appears opportunistic and dangerous.

“The Government must not use the cover of a pandemic to rob us of our rights, and when it takes sweeping steps to restrict our freedoms and side-line parliament, it is even more important that we are able to stand up to power.”

In the first few days of these laws coming into effect, over 200 people were arrested at protests in London and Manchester, and more arrests were made at protests in Bristol the following week.

On 2 November, a Home Office spokesperson said that protests are included in the ban on gatherings of more than two people, and on 4 November Home Secretary Priti Patel called on police to “strengthen” enforcement of the rules.

During the Black Lives Matter demonstrations this year, the Home Secretary said that these protests were illegal, and many demonstrators were subject to aggressive police tactics such as kettling. Police monitoring group Netpol found “racism affected the manner in which police enforced lockdown regulations and responded to Black Lives Matter protests.”

Along with other organisations, Liberty is concerned about a long-term trend of threats to the right to protest. In 2019, the Metropolitan Police unlawfully used an injunction to ban protest during the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, at which thousands of people were arrested.

Liberty distributed 24,000 legal advice cards to protestors during the first lockdown and Summer 2020.

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