25 March 2021
Just like de-platforming.
By John Watson
The verb ‘to annoy’ is declined as follows: “I am outspoken”, “You are annoying”, “He is a bigot” and the effect of the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill is to redefine the boundaries governing the public’s right not to be annoyed or endangered. It does this in a number of different ways including by replacing the common law offence of public nuisance by statute, by enabling the police to remove encampments, by resetting the standards expected from police drivers, by altering sentencing criteria and, more contentiously, it enables the police to use the Public Order Act to impose conditions on a protest which is so noisy that:
(a) it may result in the intimidation or harassment of persons of reasonable firmness with the characteristics of persons likely to be in the vicinity, or
(b) it may cause such persons to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress.
Of course the Home Office is not beginning from a standing start. The Act already provides for conditions to be imposed where the police “reasonably believe” the protest may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or the serious disruption to the life of the community; or the purpose of the protest is to intimidate others and compel them “not to do an act they have a right to do, or to do an act they have a right not to do.” Nonetheless the amendment clearly lowers the bar for police intervention because, if the bill is enacted, it will be enough for the demonstration to have the potential to cause firm-minded people unease, alarm or distress rather than to compel them to take or fail to take action. We are moving then from a right for the public not to be threatened or pushed around to a right for it not to be distressed.
Whether that is a good thing or whether those “reasonably firm” people need to be given a reasonably firm kick in the behind and told not to be so wet is an issue on which readers will come to different conclusions, those from the right tending to favour the public’s right not to be alarmed or distressed and those from the left being more inclined to the view that for the public to be distressed by noisy demonstrators is probably good for them and should not give the police the power to intervene. Fair enough, but now look at the same issue in another context.
There have been many cases over the past year of speakers at universities being de-platformed – ie refused the right to speak in the space they were originally offered. That has always happened from time to time, of course, but in more robust days the grounds would have been something like a serious threat to public order or property or, perhaps, the threat of a serious disruption of the life of the community or some compelling and intimidation. Nowadays the test has been watered down and in some of the softer-minded corners of academia speakers are banned because they may upset students by “invading their safe space”, a polite way of saying “challenge their preconceptions”. Here it is the left who support the right not to be distressed and the right who believe those affected should be more robust.
Political debate is often a process of reaching out for a principle to support existing prejudices so it is no surprise to find people taking inconsistent lines on the right not to be distressed, but in the end each of us needs to decide what sort of a person he or she is. Is the answer a cringing, weak-minded sort who cannot deal robustly with arguments which do not fit in with pre-existing prejudice? If that is the case you should support de-platforming and laud the Home Secretary on the way the new bill will protect sensitive (but of course “firm minded” to the judicial eye) souls. Or are you a tough Islander able to stand up for yourself and when necessary swap insults with a crowd?
Absolutely up to you and I would not wish to influence you. One final thought though. If you had two communities and each took the opposite view, which do you think would survive the longer on ordinary Darwinian principles?
Cover page photo: Elliot Moore (Creative Commons)