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King Charles Coronation: We all have the right to protest, but police have a duty to keep the peace

Blocking roads, spray-painting buildings, and interrupting lawful public events do not count as peaceful protest

This is my latest Scotsman column, published today, 19th May 2023.....

The heated debate about the public order arrests at the Coronation has made for interesting reading. I particularly enjoyed the serried ranks of pseudo-experts who felt able to comment despite having no experience of operational policing. At its heart, the debate centres on peaceful protest, how it is defined, and the balance with public safety.

Here in Scotland, our old common law has seen it all before and over the years has been adapted to deal with most eventualities. But whether it’s under the common law or statute, there are some simple principles. It is perfectly lawful to protest peacefully and the authorities will help you do it.

We see peaceful demonstrations every day, outside parliament or on the numerous marches through our streets. Even organisations that many find objectionable are allowed to protest. It’s expensive and sometimes problematic but we consider it a price worth paying.

Peaceful protest is lawful but disruption is not. Whether it is at a public event or the street corner, behaving in a disorderly manner, putting people in a state of fear or preventing folk from going about their business is against the law. If you feel inclined to shout and swear outside the pub, and refuse to desist, you will find yourself charged with breach of the peace. It’s no different with a large demonstration.

It goes back to the origins of policing, when keeping the peace was a key duty and, in the early 19th century, no easy task. After its foundation in 1805, Edinburgh City Police struggled to keep order, frequently having to confront unruly mobs. Later, in my time, football matches and gangs of ‘Casuals’ often sparked disorder. While the 1980s inner city riots serve to remind us that the peace cannot be taken for granted, with some exceptions, we have lately enjoyed fairly tranquil times.

However, some small but organised protest groups have been crossing the line from protest to disruption. Call it direct action if you like, but it’s really quite simple. A tiny minority is trying to impose their will on the majority by disruption.

Blocking roads is not peaceful protest, it’s obstruction. Spraying paint on buildings is not peaceful protest, it’s malicious damage. Interrupting sporting events like the Grand National is not peaceful protest but disruption of a lawful public event.

Which brings us to the Coronation. Most of the debate seems to have been around protestors’ rights and police powers but what about the rest of us? What about those who came to witness a moment in history and enjoy the pageantry? They did not come to be confronted by loudspeakers. Had I been there in the crowd with a young family, I could well have felt threatened. I may have been put in a state of fear and alarm, and looked to the police to keep the peace.

Even if you know what you are talking about, it’s foolish to second guess the decisions of operational police officers in such an enormous, fast-moving and dynamic situation. Suffice to say, if officers had reason to believe that individuals or groups threatened disruption in such a huge crowd, then they not only had the right, but the duty to intervene. No apology required.

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