Free Speech in Parliament Square

Democracy Camp, Parliament Square. Photo by Yrstrly on Flickr.
Democracy Camp, Parliament Square. Photo by Yrstrly on Flickr.

Earlier, I posted the Democracy Camp’s Press Release.  I confess I probably would not have worded the statement as they did –  “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” may be good rhetoric, but it is also a tacit admission that the camp is indeed seriously unhygenic!  Since those who oppose the protestare using a public health argument against the campers, I worry that this admission only gives more ammunition to the authorities.
My understanding of the peace camp is that it is primarily a protest against the British presence in Afghanistan, with a dash of the anarchic “Don’t vote” message thrown in for good measure.  However, the eviction controversy has replaced these demands with a version of Marshall Macluan’s “The Medium is the Message”.   More important than anything they say, is the fact that they are there.  As Westminister Council and the GLA seek to remove the protesters, the issue of the right to protest becomes paramount.
Making your point outside the seat of government is an essential component of any democracy, however unsightly it looks, and however inconvenient it is for everyone else. It is right and good that the tourists who come to photograph and tour the so-called Mother of Parliaments should also see people openly dissenting against the decisions of that parliament.  I have ambled around Parliament Square a few times in recent weeks, and the contrast between the grandeur of the Palace of Westminster, and the ramshackle protest camp, says something important about free speech and democracy.  Even the poorest and most humble of us can challenge what happens in the most ornate and powerful of places.  This is an image we should promote and propagate.
If the authorities are genuinely concerned about hygeine then they should provide modest facilities for ablutions and waste disposal… thereby facilitating the protest, not hampering it.  It would be unfair for residents of the City of Westminster, or Greater London, to foot the bill for this.  Instead, UK taxpayers should pick up the tab.

Update 19th July

Here is the Court of Appeal judgement against the Democracy Village.  I think the key paragraph is here (hat-tip to Intifada Kid):

48.  It is important to bear in mind that this was not a case where there is any suggestion that the defendants should not be allowed to express their opinions or to assemble together. The claim against them only relates to their activities on PSG. It is not even a case where they have been absolutely prohibited from expressing themselves and assembling where, or in the manner, in which they choose. They have been allowed to express their views and assemble together at the location of their choice, PSG, for over two months on an effectively exclusive basis. It is not even as if they will necessarily be excluded from mounting an orthodox demonstration at PSG in the future. Plainly, these points are not necessarily determinative of their case, but, when it comes to balancing their rights against the rights of others, they are obviously significant factors.

Taken together with points in the comments from MattGB and David, I would probably back away from my uncompromising stance in favour of the camp.  If the activities of the protesters turn Parliament Square into a no-go area for other demonstrators, then they are engaging in the denial of other people’s freedom of expression, as they excercise their right to their own.
Such an argument makes me uneasy, because similar arguments are used mendaciously in other instances – For example arguments of the “your right to free expression impedes my right to freedom of religion” kind (c.f. Behzti, Satanic Verses, Jerry Springer The Opera).  In this case however I think this formulation just about holds up – not least because the example of Brian Haw shows how someone can mount a permenant protest on Parliament Square without making it a no-go area for other.
Memo to Democracy Camp:  Next time, pick one small quadrant of lawn and stick to it!

4 Replies to “Free Speech in Parliament Square”

  1. Hmm.
    You see, I absolutely support the right of protest in Parliament Square, and still have my letter giving me ‘permission’ to protest there in a file somewhere from when I joined one of the Mark Thomas things.
    However, I’m not sure I support the right of any individual or group of individuals to live in Parliament Square. Run the same protest every day, be there from dawn until you’re dog tired, no problem.
    Crash out every so often, perhaps.
    But set up an ongoing protest designed to fill the place and be there, fixed, for months? At what point does protest become vagrancy?
    I think the way they went about trying to remove Brian was completely wrong. But if they’d instead insisted he sleep somewhere else and come back every day, different story entirely. If you go in shifts so someone is always there, also fine by me. But living there? Not sure I approve of that.

  2. Interesting angle, MatGB, but staying somewhere, or camping somewhere, is not the same as living there. If you protest in Parliament Square, and you have a home elsewhere, then by definition, you are neither a vagrant, nor are you ‘living’ in Parliament Square, however long you stay.
    And if somebody didn’t have a home elsewhere, are you saying that they wouldn’t then have the same right to protest as everybody else? Seriously?

  3. I think you have come at this issue from precisely the wrong direction, and it’s ended up confusing your thinking. Try this thought experiment: suppose a group of people came to an empty Parliament Square, as unadapted to being a campsite as it is now, and attempted to set up a campsite there that was simply a campsite and not a protest or a political message of any sort. Would it authorities be acting reasonably in telling them that Parliament Square was not a campsite, and then moving them on?
    Surely the answer to that question must be “Yes”. Public health questions, the issue of inappropriate colonising of public space, and the issue of unauthorized change of use of land, all go in the same direction. The next question follows on inevitably, which is this: what fundamental difference does it make if the campsite is proclaimed as a political demonstration? The exact same considerations apply.
    If the idea of Parliament Square as a campsite was remotely acceptable in abstract terms, then the consideration of allowing political free speech would be relevant in outweighing considerations against it. But it is not acceptable even in the abstract. The fact that it is a political demonstration is a red herring in the discussion.
    One simply cannot tear up all of society’s reasonable rules and laws because they happen to restrict someone’s idea of how they want to exercise free speech. The ECHR recognizes that. It amounts to saying that an otherwise unacceptable thing suddenly becomes acceptable if it is asserted to be political.

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