The right to protest is under threat in Britain

For holding a sign outside a courthouse reminding jurors of their right to acquit defendants, a retiree faces up to two years in prison. For hanging a banner reading “Just Stop Oil” off a bridge, an engineer got a three-year prison sentence. Just for walking slowly down the street, scores of people have been arrested.

They are among hundreds of environmental activists arrested for peaceful demonstrations in the U.K., where tough new laws restrict the right to protest.

The Conservative government says the laws prevent extremist activists from hurting the economy and disrupting daily life. Critics say civil rights are being eroded without enough scrutiny from lawmakers or protection by the courts. They say the sweeping arrests of peaceful demonstrators, along with government officials labeling environmental activists extremists, mark a worrying departure for a liberal democracy.

“Legitimate protest is part of what makes any country a safe and civilized place to live,” said Jonathon Porritt, an ecologist and former director of Friends of the Earth, who joined a vigil outside London’s Central Criminal Court to protest the treatment of demonstrators.

“The government has made its intent very clear, which is basically to suppress what is legitimate, lawful protest and to use every conceivable mechanism at their disposal to do that.”

A patchwork democracy

Britain is one of the world’s oldest democracies, home of the Magna Carta, a centuries-old Parliament and an independent judiciary. That democratic system is underpinned by an “unwritten constitution” — a set of laws, rules, conventions and judicial decisions accumulated over hundreds of years.

The effect of that patchwork is “we rely on self-restraint by governments,” said Andrew Blick, author of “Democratic Turbulence in the United Kingdom” and a political scientist at King’s College London. “You hope the people in power are going to behave themselves.”

But what if they don’t? During three turbulent and scandal-tarnished years in office, Boris Johnson pushed prime ministerial power to the limits. More recently, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has asked Parliament to overrule the U.K. Supreme Court, which blocked a plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Such actions have piled pressure on Britain’s democratic foundations. Critics say cracks have appeared.

As former Conservative justice minister David Lidington put it: “The ‘good chap’ theory of checks and balances has now been tested to destruction.”

Government takes aim at protesters

The canaries in the coal mine of the right to protest are environmental activists who have blocked roads and bridges, glued themselves to trains, splattered artworks with paint, sprayed buildings with fake blood, doused athletes in orange powder and more to draw attention to the threats posed by climate change.

The protesters, from groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain, argue that civil disobedience is justified by a climate emergency that threatens humanity’s future.

Sunak has called the protesters “selfish” and “ideological zealots,” and the British government has responded to the disruption with laws constraining the right to peaceful protest. Legal changes made in 2022 created a statutory offense of “public nuisance,” punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and gave police more powers to restrict protests judged to be disruptive.

It was followed by the 2023 Public Order Act, which broadened the definition of “serious disruption,” allowing police to search demonstrators for items including locks and glue. It imposes penalties of up to 12 months in prison for protesters who block “key infrastructure,” defined widely to include roads and bridges.

The government said it was acting to “protect the law-abiding majority’s right to go about their daily lives.” But Parliament’s cross-party Joint Human Rights Committee warned that the changes would have “a chilling effect on the right to protest.”

Days after the new act took effect in May, six anti-monarchist activists were arrested before the coronation of King Charles III before they had so much as held up a “Not My King” placard. All were later released without charge.

In recent months the pace of protests and the scale of arrests has picked up, partly as a result of a legal tweak that criminalized slow walking, a tactic adopted by protesters to block traffic by marching at low speed along roads. Hundreds of Just Stop Oil activists have been detained by police within moments of starting to walk.

Some protesters have received prison sentences that have been called unduly punitive.

Structural engineer Morgan Trowland was one of two Just Stop Oil activists who scaled the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge over the River Thames near London in October 2022, forcing police to shut the highway below for 40 hours. He was sentenced to three years in prison for causing a public nuisance. Judge Shane Collery said the tough sentence was “both for the chaos you caused and to deter others from seeking to copy you.”

He was released early on Dec. 13, having spent a total of 14 months in custody.

Ian Fry, the United Nations’ rapporteur for climate change and human rights, wrote to the British government in August over the stiff sentences, calling the anti-protest law a “direct attack on the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly.” Michel Forst, the U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders, in October called the British laws “terrifying.”

The Conservative government has dismissed the criticism.

“Those who break the law should feel the full force of it,” Sunak said in response.

Even more worrying, some legal experts say, is the “justice lottery” facing arrested protesters. Half the environmentalists tried by juries have been acquitted after explaining their motivations, including nine women who smashed a bank’s windows with hammers and five activists who sprayed the Treasury with fake blood from a firehose.

But at some other trials, judges have banned defendants from mentioning climate change or their reasons for protesting. Several defendants who defied the orders have been jailed for contempt of court.

Tim Crosland, a former government lawyer turned environmental activist, said it’s “Kafkaesque if people are on trial and they’ve got a gag around their mouth.”

“That feels like something that happens in Russia or China, not here,” he said.

To highlight concern about such judges’ orders, retired social worker Trudi Warner sat outside Inner London Crown Court in March holding a sign reading “Jurors – You have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to your conscience.” She was arrested and later informed by the solicitor-general that she would be prosecuted for contempt of court, which is punishable by up to two years in prison. Britain has strict contempt laws intended to protect jurors from interference.

Since then, hundreds more people have held similar signs outside courthouses to protest a charge they say undermines the foundations of trial by jury. Two dozen of the “Defend Our Juries” protesters have been interviewed by police, though so far no one apart from Warner has been charged.

Porritt said the aim is “to bring it to people’s attention that there is now this assault on the judicial process and on the rights of jurors to acquit according to their conscience.”