How far should protest go?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Contemporary protests raise tricky dilemmas for those committed to free speech and civil rights. Protests by Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have caused traffic mayhem and disrupted major sporting events. There have been Muslim pickets at cinemas and schools. Women using abortion services have been intimidated and upset by pro-life protesters outside clinics, while pro-choice protesters have picketed the homes of US judges. In each case, the right to protest seems to conflict with other rights. Other forms of protest – like pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the wake of the Hamas invasion of Israel – are deeply offensive to many.

To date, British police have taken a fairly ‘hands off’ approach to dealing with environmental protests, leading some civilians to take matters into their own hands by dragging road-blocking protesters away. Causing inconvenience is one thing, but many have complained that the protesters ignore the serious damage being done in missed hospital appointments and lost earnings.

But perhaps there are signs that the authorities are tiring of these stunts. Pro-life campaigners have been banned from ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics. Insulate Britain’s Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker received substantial prison sentences after their protest shut the M25 at Dartford in October last year. However, the prison sentences faced criticism. Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger declared that the English have ‘a rather proud record of not incarcerating non-violent protestors acting on a matter of conscience’ and suggested that the UK was becoming less tolerant.

How far is too far when it comes to protests? Should the UK follow France in banning pro-Palestinian protests? Does an honest belief that we live in an ‘emergency’ situation justify widespread disruption? Who decides what is acceptable or not?

Charlie Bentley-Astor
writer; commentator; free-speech advocate

Mark Johnson
advocacy manager, Big Brother Watch

Kevin O’Sullivan
presenter, TalkRADIO and TalkTV; reporter; showbiz editor; media correspondent; features editor

Sarah Phillimore
barrister; campaigner, Fair Cop

Sally Millard
director of finance; co-founder, AoI Parents Forum