CommentIsLinked@LDV: David Howarth – Who are the police protecting?

Over at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Lib Dem shadow justice secretary David Howarth asks if police interference in the right to protest is designed only to protect the political and economic status quo. Here’s an excerpt:

The arrest of more than one hundred climate protesters alleged to have been planning to disrupt the operation of the Ratcliffe coal-fired power station is, I am glad to see, raising questions about undue interference in the right to protest. Prior restraint of protest, especially in the form of preventive arrest, is difficult to justify. Adding restrictive conditions to the protesters’ bail makes the prior restraint even worse.

Of course, part of the tradition of civil disobedience is that protestors who break the law have to accept their punishment. But, as Lord Hoffmann pointed out in the Fairford case, another part of the tradition is that, as long as little or no immediate harm is done, the penalties imposed by the courts on protestors tend to be very light or even non-existent (assuming that juries can be induced to convict in the first place, which, often, they cannot be). There is a tacit understanding, which creates beneficial incentives all round, that non-violent protest, even when illegal, will not attract heavy punishment.

Preventive arrests for inchoate offences, however, stand completely outside the traditional understanding of how civil disobedience works, because they are aimed at stopping the protest itself, and at punishing the protestors without waiting to see whether they cause more than trivial harm. If catastrophic harm might come about from allowing a particular protest to happen, there might be a case for breaking the tacit understanding on that particular occasion. But anything beyond that, especially any attempt to defy the whole tradition of civil disobedience, risks destroying a very delicate mechanism that successfully balances freedom and order. It further risks producing a situation in which there is less of both, in which protest is more often suppressed, but in which it is far less civil when it occurs.

You can read the article in full HERE.

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