Your Right to Peaceful Protest
The people power of protest has been a positive force for change throughout UK history, and despite official efforts to clamp down on this free expression it is still a potent force today and the right of every citizen.
Peaceful ProtestOf all the demonstrations in the UK today it is typically the non-peaceful ones, such as the May Day riots, which attract all the publicity and give the term protest a bad name. Think of protest and images of activists smashing shop windows, burning cars and throwing missiles at riot police will likely spring to mind.
However, protest is not all about public disorder and rallying against the ‘establishment’; most protests are peaceful and uphold a long and important tradition in our democratic society. When people today dismiss protesting as a waste of time, they forget that many of the rights and freedoms we now enjoy are there because our forbearers believed so much in a cause they were prepared to take to the streets to give it a voice.
In Victorian England, the suffragettes famously used peaceful protest as a tool in campaigning for women’s rights. Their peaceful protest can be credited for giving women the right to vote.
Your Right to Peaceful ProtestImages of protesters engaged in running battles with the police on our TV screens have helped instil a belief in many that protest is somehow wrong and against the law. On the contrary, the law says we have every right to protest, just as long as we go about it peaceful manner.
When the government passed the Human Rights Act in 1988 it included the right to peaceful protest or ‘non-violent direct action’ (NVDA). In doing so it recognised that peaceful protesting as a valid and effective means of getting a point of view across to as many people as possible - as it attracts media coverage, increases awareness of your campaign and encourages new people to join.
Non-Violent Direct ActionUnder the Human Rights Act, you can take part in or organise a rally, march or gathering as long as it does not involve violence against property or persons. In order to minimise the disturbance caused, organisers must first get permission from the police, and inform them how many people are expected to attend, when and where it will take place, and, if it involves a march, the route.
Pressure groups such as CND, The League Against Cruel Sports and Drop the Debt have long been advocates of peaceful protest and its power to draw attention to their campaigns.
Peaceful Protest OppositionHowever, this does not mean that peaceful protesters pursue their demonstrations without opposition, far from it. The police have an array of laws and powers at their disposal to control, restrict and even stop protesters going about peaceful demonstrations.
The police can refuse to grant permission for a demonstration on grounds that it could lead to serious public disorder, damage to property, or the catch-all category ‘disruption to the life of the local community’. A protest might also be seen to prompt a threat of terrorism or constitute anti-social behaviour. A sit-down protest or blockade can be seen to be as an obstruction.