Home > Assemblies and protests > Twin pressures on protests

Twin pressures on protests

For some time, newspapers have been writing about the use of s.44 of the Terrorism Act to stop people photographing public buildings. In a piece published in the Guardian earlier this week, Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, argued that restrictions on the way people use public spaces arise in other ways:

This monitoring and surveillance of innocent activities, which does not necessarily require anti-terror laws, is taking place all around Britain as a result of the growing private ownership and private control of cities.

The point is an important one, that the use of public spaces is subject to control through ownership as well as direct legal regulation.

Some common law or legislative powers allow the police to curtail people’s freedom to assemble or use public spaces. While there are understandable objections to the heavy-handed use of such powers, the laws granting those powers are at least known and subject to scrutiny. As a result, the exercise of those legal powers by the police can be challenged in court. The laws that give those powers to the police have also attracted attention and been widely criticised. The most obvious example being the 2005 legislation that required police authorisation before demonstrating in Parliament Square. Following the strong public reaction and criticism, legislation currently going through Parliament should repeal that law (it will be replaced with provisions granting police powers to regulate assemblies around Westminster). In the case of s.44 mentioned above, the police are at least trying to answer some of the concerns in the newspapers. While far from perfect, there are at least ways to challenge the legal controls.

The right to assemble is under a more subtle attack through the private management and the private ownership of public spaces. These changes may not give the landowner special powers, such as those available to the police, but allows all the rights associated with property ownership to regulate the land. The landowner can impose conditions on people entering the land (such as a ban on leafleting or political activities), rely on security guards to ask certain people to move on, or merely change the tone of an area in way that deters certain users. The more subtle powers associated with land ownership are not normally reviewable in court in the same way as police powers. Nor are the powers democratically accountable in the way that a local authority is.

The right to assemble and associate in public spaces is subject to the twin pressures of legal controls and changes in land management. Both raise important issues, but as Minton points out, the changes in land management have not been as high-profile or subject to the same level of debate as the legal controls.

What is not known is how many people have been affected by these changes. There are the occasional reports of protesters or leafleters being denied access to certain private areas and sometimes a legal complaint is made. However, it remains unknown how many people are deterred by a sign saying ‘no leaflets,’ or agree to leave a space when asked to move on by a security guard. The private control of certain public spaces may well have been brought about for good reasons – but it has potentially significant effects on civil liberties.

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