Intertwined within the essence of democracy is the right to freely express ideas and opinions, even those that are not in favour of the government. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the right to freedom of speech and expression is embedded in their values.
U.S. citizens have been invoking the First Amendment since its signing in 1791, granting the freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press.
The U.K., though, did not have a specific bill like its neighbour across the Atlantic until 1998. While it still had its form of freedom of expression, it was not until the Human Rights Act of 1998 that the freedom of assembly and associationwas explicitly signed into law.
In light of the controversial stir that the environmental activist group, Just Stop Oil, has created across England’s infrastructure, let us take an examination of how each country has, and is, handling civil disobedience on its streets.
A standoff: The United Kingdom versus Just Stop Oil
Since its founding in February of 2022, Just Stop Oil has undoubtedly been making itself heard. Non-violent actions by the group include throwing soup on a Van Gogh painting, throwing confetti during a tennis match at Wimbledonand shutting down highways. Discussion about the activists and their controversial tactics has become unavoidable as they take over major news headlines. The group’s main goal: “demanding the UK Government stop licensing all new oil, gas and coal projects.”
On the Just Stop Oil website, the group holds training programmes for those interested in participating in non-violent slow marches. While there is widespread dislike for the activists’ tactics, it is apparent that they are not aiming to be liked, but to be heard.
As seen in many viral videos, these tactics of ‘slow marches’ have been combated with force from not only police, but aggravated motorists held behind a blockade of bright orange vests. The onslaught of media surrounding these street takeovers prompts people to ask, is this legal?
The Highways Act of 1980 stipulates that any person who “wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway” is “guilty of an offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks or a fine or both.”
However, a BBC article indicates that Just Stop Oil referenced a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that “there should be a ‘certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life, including the disruption of traffic’, as a result of non-violent protest.”
In a recent large-scale march that occurred across numerous London streets, officers removed 183 protesters and arrested up to 21. Those occupying streets are continuing to challenge the limits of legal protesting.
But the government’s response to the growingly more frequent and disruptive protests has been to tighten the legal standings and freedoms that peaceful protestors are granted. The most recent bill being the Public Order Act passed in May 2023.
The anti-protest bill stipulates that it is an offence for protestors to interfere with use or operation of key national infrastructure. It is also an offence to commit the act of tunnelling, to obstruct major transport works and to attach themselves to “another person, to an object or to land.” The act also gives police officers the power to stop and search civilians in or around a protest without suspicion.
According to a BBC article, previous legislation stipulated that “the police could generally restrict a protest only if they could show it may result in ‘serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’.”
But this threshold has since been lowered.
In April, 2023, the U.N. Human Rights Chief Volker Turk delivered a statement, calling on the British government to “reverse legislation that would clamp down on protests by giving police in England and Wales more powers to act to prevent serious disruption.”
In response, the British Government said that the legislation was due to a “small minority” of environmental action protests that were “disrupting the lives of the wider public,” continued the Reuters article.
Support for the bill can be expected to come from the police force working to regulate the disturbances and commuters that have been blocked by the interlocking arms and orange banners.
But the bill has received much criticism for increasing the power that the police force has while further restricting civilians’ key freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
How does this compare to anti-protest legislation in the United States?
After George Floyd attempted to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, he was pinned to the ground by three Minneapolis police officers, leaving Mr. Floyd unable to breathe. The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2021 sparked international protest and conversation around police brutality and systemic racism.
His death, combined with the heightened condemnation of law enforcement across the country due to other instances of brutality and excessive force. Americans took to the streets in protest of injustice.
Similarly to the climate activists in London, Black Lives Matters protestors in the states occupied roads and even highways, subsequently disrupting traffic.
During one such instance in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May, 2020, a pick up truck pulling a horse trailer drove through a Black Lives Matter rally taking place on Interstate 244, injuring three people, paralysing one. No criminal chargeswere filed against the driver who claimed that he feared for the safety of his family as protestors threw projectiles at his vehicle. According to 2 News Oklahoma, the protestors veered off the police protected route and onto the interstate, blocking vehicles.
That next month, Oklahoma passed a law that “increased penalties for demonstrators who block public roadways and granted immunity to motorists who unintentionally kill or injure protestors attempting to flee.”
Obstructing the use of a public street or a highway during a protest is punishable by up to a year in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
But Oklahoma was not alone in its roll-out of anti-protest laws. According to a New York Times article, Iowa also passed a bill granting immunity to drivers who hit protestors on public streets. Spearheaded by the Republican Party, some politicians framed these bills as anti-riot, and pro-law enforcement measures, despite a study indicating the vast majority of protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement had been peaceful.
According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, 269 anti-protest bills have been proposed and 45 states have considered the bills that would “create new offences and increase penalties for a broad range of interference on passageways.” Since the beginning of the protest movement following the death of George Floyd, 21 states have enacted anti-protest bills relating to traffic interference.
In Section 2101 of Title 18 of the United States Code, the incitement of riots is already outlawed and has been since 1970. Critics have therefore argued that the anti-protest bills were not a way of protecting civilians, but of suppressing freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
The similar responses of both countries’ governments
In both the U.S. and the U.K., social movements in retaliation to injustice have led to protests occupying the streets in an act of civil disobedience. Just Stop Oil activists conducted slow marches in the middle of busy streets which was combatted by the rolling out of laws that tightened the freedoms of non-violent protestors, providing harsher sentences and more power granted to police.
Similarly, Black Lives Matters protestors were met with harsh bills and harsher penalties for traffic disturbance. Despite their different causes and motivations, both groups were met with similar legislative retaliation.
In certain U.S. states, though, Republican lawmakers and politicians went so far as to provide immunity to motorists, which is the demographic that the U.K. government did not seem to focus on. These laws are also specific to state governments rather than federal.
While Just Stop Oil was the cause for the 2023 Public Order Act, the law will have a rippling affect across not just one group, but all protests that occur in the U.K.
Critics in both countries are sceptical of the government’s response of targeting protestors rather than addressing the grievances of those protesting. The legality behind non-violent protest is being challenged, inadvertently testing and subsequently tightening the freedoms of speech and assembly.
While the Black Lives Matter movement protests have since become much less frequent since 2020, Just Stop Oil shows no sign of letting up. Time will tell how they will respond to these harsher offences, and if it will affect the frequency of protests and the masses that join them.
By Jack Underhill, You Press Intern