Free the Glasgow five!

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on June 29, 2009
Posted Under: Civil Liberties

Five Glaswegians will appear in court today, charged with criminal offences for protesting at an army day parade.   It is understood that  those arrested were singing or chanting republican slogans.

If you haven’t heard of ‘Army Day’ until now, that is because it is a newfangled invention. On the back of a deeply unpopular war, it would seem that the powers that be feel that a new set of propaganda excersizes is in order. Thus on Saturday parades took place through Britain’s towns and cities.

Now if the army feel the need to hold propaganda excersizes in our town squares then that is up to them. But they cannot expect to do so wihtout encountering dissent. As a citizen, I  am regularly involved in propaganda excerises in the streets of my city. I have gone on countless demonstrations. And on a great many we have encountered vocal opposition. And this is fine. It is called free expression. I have the right march or parade or demonstrate and other people have the right to express verbal opposition.

So why should the army get special treatment? Why should the army be entitled not only to hold propaganda excerises, but to expect that any dissent will be silenced by the full force of the law?  I find Army  Parades such  as these distasteful and idiotic. But I am far more appalled by the idea that our normal rights to free expression should be suspended so that they can go unchallenged.

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Reader Comments


I’m not sure what’s wrong with army parades. They are one ritual among many others in our society, the purposes of which are intangible and irrational (or, rather, non-rational), but boost the morale of the armed forces at a time when it’s pretty low. In any case, we can’t ignore whether the protesters were in fact prima facie guilty of any offence. Our agreeing/disagreeing that there should be such an offence is a different matter. That said, public order powers are used with surprising liberality and bluntness by the police. The powers they were given in the 80s and 90s (PACE and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act) are astonishingly broad in some respects. Putting the law aside, I’ve always had difficulty with the idea that a right (particularly the right to freedom of expression) is a ‘trump’ or otherwise free from social conventions.

Written By Tendai on June 29th, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

Tendai, out of interest what laws were they breaking?

And it depends what you mean social coventions. Its a slippery slope – and can effectively mean that a right can be excersized insofar as it doesnt offend the tastes of the majority.

Written By Reuben on June 29th, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

Without reading the details behind the arrest, I’m afraid I don’t know what law they were arrested under, but I can think of a bunch of possibilities. The police can, for instance, arrest somebody if there is a threat to public order arising from their activities (e.g. if their individual or collective actions are seen as provocative enough to possibly lead to public disorder). More likely, I was thinking disruptive trespass or trespassory assembly (of which certain guests at the Cam law fac fell foul a few months ago). I don’t like the idea of criminalising activism, but the law as it is at the moment, does allow the police to lawfully prevent protests of that kind, or at least detain protesters.

I do understand the slippery slope problem with regard to protest and free speech. But I don’t see that this leads to a majority fiat problem. One of my favourite bloggers puts it this:
“People have the “right” to act [in a provocative way], in the limited sense that it would be wrong for others to coercively prevent them. But the mere fact that we are at liberty to act in some way, says little about whether we should so act, or whether it’s even morally permissible. The relevant question is not, ‘Are others allowed to stop me from doing this?’ but ‘Is this something that any minimally decent human being would do?’”

Frankly, not all forms of free speech or free expression are valuable, if we understand the value of free speech in the Millean sense viz. the capacity to enhance reasoned debate. Sure, free speech and free expression are always valuable to the individual pleading it. But that doesn’t say much about the value of the action or speech, especially where the action or speech comes at the cost of grave offence or unnecessary provocation (what I meant by social conventions). Now this is obviously different from saying offence/provocation are sufficient reason to prevent free speech: I don’t mean this. Instead, you might say that offence or provocation that does nothing to further the discussion is not valuable free speech. In practice we have no consistent way of deciding what is valuable to reasoned debate. But making a nuisance of oneself, though it shouldn’t be coercively prevented, isn’t, in my view, inherently valuable to the liberal society. Even though it may be to the individual who acts in that way, and in our best interests to avoid coercively preventing it.

Written By Tendai on June 30th, 2009 @ 7:50 am

Framing the question of protest rights in terms of reasonable debate seems to ignore a large part of what protests are, which is a display of strength. In the case of the Law Faculty occupation, the point was partly to draw the universities attention to, and provide arguments for, the need for support for Gaza, but it was also designed to put the university under practical pressure. I would say that all protests can be analyzed in a similar way. In the case of protesting against army day, the point, as I see it, is to make the event embarrassing for the army in order to reduce their chances of recruiting. In a hypothetical perfect democracy I might consider that such tactics would be cynical and unethical. In the society we live in at present, not employing our ability to make life difficult is essentially giving up.

I do of course agree with you that free speech is not a right that trumps everything else. If I run into the House of Commons and start screaming (politically motivated) obscenities it is reasonable that I be removed. It is just that I do not see the exercising of free speech as the primary purpose of political activism.

Written By Michael on June 30th, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

Michael, great response, and interesting perspectives.

Written By Tendai on June 30th, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

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