Article 11: Right to protest and freedom of association

Posted by Sabina Frediani on 14 December 2011

Everyone has the right to protest and freedom of peaceful assembly, and it’s a right protected by Article 11 of the Human Rights Act. Closely linked to freedom of expression, the right to protest is as fundamental to democracy as the rule of law or a free press.

Article 11 protection applies to various events including demonstrations and protest marches, meetings, “sit-ins” and press conferences. It only protects peaceful gatherings and doesn’t cover deliberately violent protests.

The right to protest cannot be interfered with merely because people disagree with protesters’ views, or because a demonstration is inconvenient. Lots of actions by the authorities can amount to interference – preventing a demonstration, delaying a protest, disrupting a demonstration in advance and storing information on people’s political opinions and activities.

The State also has to take positive steps to facilitate the right to protest and protect participants. But this doesn’t always happen. For example, in recent years Liberty has been contacted by several different march organisers complaining the authorities have refused to help; instead telling them they need to pay for things like road closure orders and pricey insurance. Councils and police forces shouldn’t be dissuading people from exercising their right to protest by making it seem too difficult and expensive. Thankfully in the cases we’ve dealt with the authorities have backed down when we’ve reminded them of their Human Rights Act obligations.

Everyone also has the right to freedom of association with others under Article 11, including the right to form and join trade unions and other associations. Naturally, the right not to associate with others is also covered.

Like many, Article 11 is a qualified right and can be limited, but again only if the limitation is approved by law, necessary and proportionate and in pursuit of a legitimate aim such as national security or public safety.

With the Government’s cuts starting to bite, the right to protest is going to become a bigger issue than ever. It’s a crucial part of political life and it’s played a big part in securing many major changes, including the extension of voting rights. Before Article 11 there was no actual right to protest; it was only tolerated.

Yet still we see laws designed for anti-social behaviour and serious crime used against peaceful protesters. And now we’re told that Westminster Council is considering a byelaw to limit the right to protest around Parliament Square.

Such measures seeking to undermine the right to protest must be resisted. Westminster is the seat of our democracy, and the freedom to protest near parliament is of massive symbolic and practical importance. It allows people to influence decision-makers and take an active part in our democratic process between elections, and we must continue defending the Human Rights Act to ensure the freedom to protest remains intact.