Criminalising protest

August 8, 2013

I take issue with a number of the points made by Geraldine Van Bueren in “Making waves” (Opinion, 11 July).

It is inaccurate to say that Trenton Oldfield, the Boat Race protester, did not act peacefully. If his protest had been deemed violent he would have been charged accordingly. Instead he was charged with public nuisance, an offence that in 2010 the Law Commission recommended should be abolished for being vague, outdated and often in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. The body warned that public nuisance could be used to criminalise any undesirable behaviour, including protests.

Oldfield was initially charged under Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which is punishable by a fine. However, after Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North, challenged Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, about this during a Home Affairs select committee meeting, it was changed to public nuisance, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Oldfield has always maintained that he was exercising his democratic right to protest. He argues that his decision to disrupt the Boat Race stemmed from three developments that took place in the days beforehand: the coalition signed the draft communications and data bill, which if passed into law would have legalised the surveillance of all UK citizens’ digital communications; the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (which effectively privatises the NHS) received Royal Assent; and finally, a Cabinet minister, Hugh Robertson, called on the public to report their neighbours to the police if they suspected them of planning a protest at the London 2012 Olympics.

Van Bueren says it is unlikely that Oldfield will base his legal arguments against deportation on the basis of the disproportionality of the state’s reaction to his actions. But arguably this has been very disproportionate indeed: he was charged with an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment when nobody including himself was injured in the course of the protest. Ultimately he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Finally, the last paragraph of the article is disingenuous: it conflates the fact that someone would prefer to live with his family, friends and in a place he has made his home with a smug Union Jack-waving nationalism.

Nadine El-Enany
Lecturer in law
Birkbeck, University of London

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