Perhaps all is fair in love and culture war. But taking a protest-restricting bill to the House of Commons this week just days after a severe crackdown on protesters on the streets of St Petersburg surely raises some major questions.
It’s interesting that Westminster would expose itself to such criticism right now. Only last week, Canada condemned Cuba for sentencing anti-government protesters with 20-year-prison sentences. China, in turn, criticised Canada for having double standards by violently unleashing pepper spray, stun grenades and batons against their “freedom convoy” demonstrators. Then the world condemned Russia for massive crackdowns against anti-war protestors in 48 cities on Sunday. And now, the UK government is taking unprecedented steps to clamp down on protest in the streets of England and Wales.
The government’s headline messaging is that the bill is to protect citizens from what Boris Johnson described as Extinction Rebellion’s “littering” of the streets with “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs”. But it’s unclear then, why they signalled their intention to re-introduce what the House of Lords had opposed – the reference to a “one-man protest”. By this logic, one person sharing their beliefs in public, but deemed to be causing “alarm” or “unease” by doing so, could be criminalised under the same law that would ban the blocking of ambulances on the M45.
We all have our own beliefs and opinions, and because we live in a pluralistic society, they aren’t all the same. Part of the risk of a democracy is that we might not always like what our peers say. In a world where “cancel culture” reigns supreme, this is already becoming difficult. Just ask Hazel Lewis. The female street evangelist faced arrest, detention and eighteen months of legal turmoil because some passers by claimed they had felt “abused” by her Christian message – including her Bible-based belief that all people – including her – are “sinners”.
Hazel represents dozens of public evangelists that are frequently arrested and detained because somebody found them offensive. Or the myriad of comics who are cancelled by clubs because someone was upset about a joke they made. The proposed PCSC Bill strengthens this culture and sharpens the legal teeth of those who interpret someone to be causing “unease” in public. For those who enjoy making audiences squirm during their stand-up routine, free speech restrictions could soon be no joke.
As MPs debated the bill this week, they missed a chance to change course. The bill could have represented an opportunity to change the current public order law that is failing to protect Hazel and others who are legitimately expressing their beliefs in the public square.
A clause which protects free speech could have been inserted in order to balance out restrictions and bring the bill more into focus against genuine anti-social activity. The bill could also have been used to enhance police training, so that officers don’t find themselves struggling in highly-strung, politicised scenarios of he-said-she-said when it comes to somebody taking offence or claiming “unease” due to another person’s words.
Elected MPs have failed to take these opportunities and have once again kicked the chance to restore freedoms in this Bill back to the House of Lords. Let’s hope the Lords have the wisdom and wherewithal to restore common sense.
Now more than ever, we need to remember that protest, free speech and the exchange of different ideas are a critical component of a democratic society. If we want to be setting an example on the world stage, good practice starts at home.