Why is there concern over free speech in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth II's death?

·6-min read

Concerns are mounting in the United Kingdom over free speech after several people expressing opposition to the monarchy were arrested.

It comes amid a general outpouring of support for the royal family following Queen Elizabeth II's death and the accession of King Charles III.

Most of the arrests were for breaching the peace, although some were subsequently de-arrested and asked to assist police "voluntarily".

Free speech 'is something precious'

Paul Powlesland, a 36-year-old barrister, said he was approached by police at Parliament Square in London after he held up "a blank piece of paper".

He decided to go out and protest what he called a "lack of freedom of expression", having watched a video of an anti-monarchist protestor being arrested by officers outside of the House of Commons on Monday.

"I was pretty outraged," he told Euronews. "Obviously, this is a time of national mourning, but I also think free speech is really something precious and important."

"It is important for people to protest ... if you want to hold up a placard saying 'God save the king', then knock yourself out. If you want to hold one up saying 'not my King' you should have that right as well," Powlesland added.

"It is pretty simple, isn't it?"

As a barrister, Powlesland decided to display a blank sign as he did not want to risk getting arrested and "letting his client down" who he was representing the next day.

"If don't turn up to represent your client because you are in a cell, it is not a good look," he joked.

Around ten minutes after arriving at Parliament Square with his blank placard, Powlesland was approached by a police officer who asked for his details.

The young barrister asked if he would have been arrested if "not my king" was written on the paper to which the officer allegedly replied "yes" since that would be "offensive at this time."

Powlesland claimed that the "media furore" surrounding the arrests has caused police to "ride back" from their previous approach towards anti-monarchists or rights advocates, calling this a "small victory for freedom of speech". 

After the video of a protestor being led away by police circulated online, London's Metropolitan Police issued a statement on Monday maintaining the "public absolutely have a right to protest".

"We have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place and we will continue to do so," the force added.

Powlesland said the police response to some protestors raised worrying implications for freedoms currently enjoyed by people in the UK, adding that the threat of arrest or imprisonment -- even if it did not lead to a criminal conviction -- could deter people from exercising their right to protest.

"Free speech is a very precious right that we've taken hundreds of years to build up," he told Euronews. "It can easily slip if it's not constantly maintained."

"What can easily happen in these moments of national mourning or pride, our rights can be kicked away," he added.

Powlesland told Euronews he was planning to go to Parliament Square with a small group of protesters on Tuesday night to see if police response would be different following their statement.

On Sunday, Symon Hill, 45, says he was arrested by police in the university town of Oxford, during the proclamation of King Charles III. He reportedly shouted "who elected him" and was promptly arrested by officers on suspicion of a public order offence.

Hill was later de-arrested after he refused to be interviewed without a lawyer and was driven home by police.

'It's very worrying'

Powlesland's concerns were echoed by rights groups in the UK.

“Protest is not a gift from the state, it is a fundamental right," said Jodie Beck, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty. "Being able to choose what, how, and when we protest is a vital part of a healthy and functioning democracy."

Liberty, an NGO focused on defending personal freedoms in the UK, said it had seen an alarming spike in police arresting people for "peaceful protests" in light of the Queen's death.

"It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression," Beck said, citing the Policing Bill and Public Order Act.

"The government is making it harder for people to stand up for what they believe in," she added.

What's the law?

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 allows police in England and Wales to arrest anyone causing harassment, alarm or distress to the public. It carries a maximum penalty of a £1,000 fine.

The law surrounding protest was widened with the 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which has been criticised by civil liberties campaigns, charities and academics for weakening the right to protest in the UK.

One of its most controversial elements is allowing the police to place conditions on protests if they believe they are too noisy.

While there is no specific right in law, the right to protest is enshrined in the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in the European Convention on Human Rights, which was directly incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act.

Although he recognised that it was a “difficult situation” for police, Eamon Keane, a solicitor and lecturer in criminal procedure and evidence at Glasgow University, said there were “serious concerns” around the arrest of protestors in Scotland, especially if they are prosecuted.

On Sunday, two demonstrators in the Scottish capital were arrested amid King Charles III's proclamation ceremony, one of whom carried a sign which said: “F*** imperialism, abolish the monarchy.”

Both protestors -- a 22-year-old woman and a 74-year-old man -- were charged with "breaching the peace", an article of Scottish law prohibiting disorderly behaviour that could have a negative effect on witnesses, including acts like swearing or shouting.

The pair are due to appear separately in Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

In such cases, Keane said authorities must consider whether a person's actions are “genuinely alarming and disturbing and threaten serious disturbance to the community,” and the police response to it is “proportionate and necessary”.

“The state has got certain obligations, regarding freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, where political speech is concerned, although these are not unqualified rights. That said, the sum total of what [one protestor] appears to have been arrested for is holding up a sign,” he said.

“I struggle to understand how holding up that sign could meet the threshold for a breach of the peace, and any subsequent prosecution on that basis would clearly bring into play serious concerns about fundamental human rights.”

Four other arrests were made in connection with breaching the peace in Edinburgh during the Queen's funeral procession on Monday.

“If we see individuals prosecuted merely for expressing anti-royalist sentiment at this time – even in ways that people might find unpalatable – I think that's very, very concerning.”

“This should concern everybody,” Keane added.