The decision by the European court of human rights that Britain´s libel laws denied Dave Morris and Helen Steel their right of free speech (by refusing them legal aid to defend themselves against McDonald´s libel suit) was a great moment for democracy and freedom of speech. However, it may have been a hollow victory thanks to legislation being introduced by the "Labour" Government.
The "serious organised crime and police bill" passed it´s third reading in the House of Commons, making it likely that the next time it will not be a civil case (e.g. libel), but a criminal case (for harassment) which is raised against protestors. Once this bill becomes law, it will be used to ban people from handing out leaflets to customers (such as those entering McDonald´s) whether their contents are defamatory or not.
Section 121 criminalises "pursuing a course of conduct which involves harassment of two or more persons....to persuade any person ... not to do something that he is entitled or required to do, or to do something that he is not under any obligation to do". Furthermore, harassment can include "conduct on at least one occasion", "in relation to two or more persons". For example, if you hand a leaflet to two or more people warning them that a product has horrible side effects, and this causes them "alarm or distress" (because of the content, not your manner) you are guilty of harassing them!
Sections 122 and 123 redefine harassing someone in their home to allow a total ban on all protest in any residential area. If you protest anything at all in a residential area, you can face a fine of £2500 or a year in prison.
Before you argue that this reading of the law is excessive, you should be aware that UK citizens have already been arrested for emailing their complaints to companies involved in animal testing, and protestors on their way to a demo outside an army base were illegally detained by police before any offence had even been committed. The new law will also prevent the lone anti-war protester Brian Haw from camping on the pavement in Parliament Square, and can be used to allow the Home Secretary to prevent any peaceful demonstration (such as an anti-war rally) going ahead.
Add this legislation to -
the 1986 Public Order Act
the 1992 Trade Union Act
the 1994 Criminal Justice Act
the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act
the 2000 Terrorism Act
the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act
the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act
the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act
the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act
and you find that virtually any peaceful protest can be defined as illegal.
Those of us protesting at the erosion of our democratic right to peacefully state our disagreement are not being paranoid, as the Government claim. Remember, the Home Office claimed the Protection from Harassment Act and the 2000 Terrorism Act would not be used against peaceful protesters - but they were. The Government cannot be trusted.
"Liberty" have warned that "The right to peaceful protest is at the heart of the British tradition of liberty. It is an indictment upon the Government that they seek to pass primary legislation to stop one man's protest using the justification that it spoils the view...It is difficult to see how Clause 123 can be compatible with Article 11 of the Human Rights Act (the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association)."
So, history repeats itself.
In 1817, The Seditious Meetings Act criminalised protest meetings and suspended Habeas Corpus (allowing arrests and trials without charges), while the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act and Newspaper Stamp Duties Act meant that printers and writers of "seditious materials" could be imprisoned. The leader of the opposition complained "A dead silence in the country might for a season be produced by soldiers and penal laws, but nothing could reconcile the people to the loss of their rights, or compel them to submit quietly to that grievous deprivation... The right of meeting was not only to be taken away, but the broad liberty of the press was to be invaded... Nothing would satisfy the noble lord but an attack upon the very vital principles of the British constitution." (Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, Vol.41, (l819) cols. 407-412)
British citizens died to give us the right to protest peacefully.
Now, in 2005, they are criminalising peaceful, political protest and calling it "serious organised crime", and claiming the right to arrest and detain people indefinitely without trial (either in prison or at home).
The Government´s attempts to prevent long-term demonstrations in Parliament Square are in direct contradiction to the verdict of Mr. Justice Gray´s on 4 October 2002 regarding the peaceful protest of Mr Haw (who has been camped outside the Houses of Parliament). The Judge refused to provide the government with an injunction against Mr Haw citing article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom of expression...including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers).
Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour - Islington North) states "They want to create an antiseptic tourist attraction that has nothing to do with democracy or participation" (Hansard, 3 November 2004), and Lembit Opik MP (LibDem - Montgomeryshire) added "As far as I am concerned, introducing legislation to outlaw such behaviour [long-term protest in Parliament Square] is in itself a crime." (Hansard, 3 November 2004).
If this legislation is to be used against political pamphleteers then you would think it could also be used against people handing out flyers for sales, Tory politicians campaigning and Christians who accost you in the street all of whom have handed me literature which I found distressing. Sadly the chances are it will only be applied when it suits the government and it looks like another step towards a Police State.