Police want power to crack down on demo slogans
Sunday, November 26th, 2006
Police are to demand new powers to arrest protesters for causing offence through the words they chant and the slogans on their placards and even headbands.
The country’s biggest force, the Metropolitan police, is to lobby the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, because officers believe that large sections of the population have become increasingly politicised, and there is a growing sense that the current restrictions on demonstrations are too light.
Trouble at recent protests involving Islamic extremists has galvanised the Met’s assistant commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur, into planning a crackdown. His proposals are due to be sent to Lord Goldsmith, who is reviewing how effective the current laws are in tackling extremists.
The police want powers to proscribe protest chants and slogans on placards, banners and headbands. Human rights experts say that such powers could also be used against protesters such as animal rights and anti-globalisation activists. The civil rights group Liberty said the powers would make the police “censors in chief”.Mr Ghaffur has previously advocated banning flag burning. But this document would take the police a lot further. Mr Ghaffur says there is a “growing national and international perception” that the police have been too soft on extremist protesters, which has led to rising anger across the country. “The result has been to create an imbalance in public perception that is manifesting itself in passionate responses from elements of the community not traditionally given to publicly protesting. What we are seeing in effect is a rise in the politicisation of middle England and the emergence of a significant challenge for capital city policing.”
As well as the absence of a law banning the burning of a flag, there is no law banning the burning of a religious text.
The police want powers to tackle a “grey area” in the array of public order laws. At present, causing offence by itself is not a criminal offence.
“There must be a clear message that we will not allow any extremist group to display banners or make public statements that clearly cause offence within the existing law,” the document says.
The document continues: “Is the sand shifting in our collective viewpoint around what constitutes ‘causing offence’? Equally, we need to have a clearer determination of current community perceptions around what ‘public offence’ actually means. We also need to think more laterally around how we police public demonstrations where ‘offence’ could be caused, while still respecting the British position around freedom of speech.”
The document, entitled “The widening agenda of public demonstrations and radicalisation”, says Islamic extremists have learned how to cause offence without breaking the law. It also reveals that the government has yet to implement the bill outlawing religious hatred which received royal assent in February. It says that the law may prove useless against extremists: “Virtually all activity by protesters could constitute insulting or abusive language, behaviour or banners towards particular religions, but would fall outside the remit of inciting religious hatred.”
The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said: “[The proposal] misunderstands the nature of law and free expression in a democracy and casts the police as censors in chief. It aims to protect people from ‘offence’ rather than harm, slates the CPS and muses wildly on ‘public perceptions’.”
After protests against the Danish cartoons in London, organised by a radical Muslim group, Scotland Yard received 100 complaints demanding action against the protesters.
A solicitor who has defended protesters, Mike Schwarz, said: “Causing offence, if there is no other ingredient, is not against the law.” He said such proposed powers would clash with article 10 of the European convention on human rights which protects freedom of expression.