The Daily Telegraph

Even republican­s have a right to cause offence

Police officers go beyond the law when they curtail the free expression of legitimate protestors

- MATTHEW SCOTT Matthew Scott is a barrister at Pump Court Chambers FOLLOW Matthew Scott on Twitter @Barristerb­log; READ MORE at telegraph.co.uk/opinion

Acouple of days ago, London barrister Paul Powlesland was in Parliament Square equipped with a recording device and a blank sheet of paper. A police officer approached him and started to ask him questions. Mr Powlesland started recording. From the short clip that he subsequent­ly posted on Twitter, it seems that the officer may have confused Mr Powlesland with someone else, and incorrectl­y thought that he could be in breach of his bail conditions.

The officer asked him for his details and Mr Powlesland asked him why he wanted them. Mr Powlesland told the officer that he was intending to write something that “might offend” people on the paper. He was going to write “Not My King”.

That, said the officer, might offend people, and he began to give Mr Powlesland what he termed “some advice”, although it did not sound as if the barrister was inclined to accept it.

Mr Powlesland says the advice of the officer was to the effect that, if he proceeded with his republican protest, he would be arrested under the Public Order Act. No such threat was captured on the clip Mr Powlesland posted on Twitter, so it is a little hard to judge the context of the officer’s threat. In any event, Mr Powlesland was not arrested, neither his paper nor his recording device were seized, and he was able to go on his way.

I do have a little sympathy with the officer, and not just because he had been seconded from Norfolk to police a very un-norfolk-like event (though I daresay even Sandringha­m has seen one or two polite republican protests over the years). Barristers all too easily default to self-importance and pomposity, especially when being offered unwanted advice from police officers.

Over the next few days, Queen Elizabeth II’S funeral arrangemen­ts are going to pose an extraordin­ary challenge to the Met, as London fills up with monarchs, presidents and other dignitarie­s from every country in the world except Russia, Belarus and Myanmar, as well as an unpreceden­ted influx of tourists and mourners. It is impossible to imagine a more inviting prospect for terrorists and the last thing ordinary officers need is tiresome arguments with lawyers.

But for all that, Mr Powlesland was right and the officer was wrong.

It is true that some people are extraordin­arily thin-skinned and a few of these might be offended by the expression of anti-carolean sentiments.

But the criminal law does not exist to save their feelings.

Simply being offensive is not a criminal offence – whether under the Public Order Act or otherwise. Being a bit of a nuisance is not an offence. Republican­s do not need “advice” from police officers and individual officers should know better than to proffer it. The job of police in a democracy should be to facilitate the widest possible expression of opinion, not to stifle it.

Too often in recent years, however, police forces have taken it upon themselves to do precisely that. Indeed, the incident has echoes of the officer who visited Harry Miller after he posted supposedly “transphobi­c” tweets only to find himself the subject of a “hate incident” report, and a visit from a constable despatched to “check his thinking”. Mr Miller had the determinat­ion to successful­ly contest the matter in court, but few are in a position to litigate.

Officers have faced some unfair criticism: a woman carrying a “Not My King” placard was filmed being escorted away from the entrance to the Palace of Westminste­r, leading some to complain that the Met were behaving like Moscow police cracking down on anti-war protesters, but the footage appears to have been misleading. As the Met made clear – in fluent ‘Policespea­k’ – she was moved away from the Carriage Gates “in order to facilitate vehicle access and egress through the gates”. She was not arrested and was left free to continue with her protest. That was good policing.

This is not always straightfo­rward. Some of those who now criticise the police for threatenin­g to arrest Mr Powlesland over a republican placard were probably less than sanguine when Muslim protestors burned poppies at Remembranc­e Day commemorat­ions. If offensive political placards were to be displayed at the late Queen’s funeral procession, even some of the greatest champions of free speech might find their tolerance wearing thin.

And officers can be put in an almost impossible position where the expression of lawful opinions causes a violent reaction. Whether or not it was lawful for an Edinburgh protestor to hurl abuse at Prince Andrew, police officers present had the immediate task of preventing a riot breaking out when he did so. It is easy to criticise them for arresting the wrong person, but not so easy to know exactly what they should have done differentl­y. A wrongful arrest is sometimes preferable to the risk of a riot.

None of that, of course, justifies the pointless questionin­g of Mr Powlesland. He was not going to cause a riot, he was not committing any offence, and the officer ought to have ignored him.

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