In the wake of the Occupy movement, student protests and TUC rallies in London over the past year, the Home Office has ordered officials to draft plans for avoiding public protests during the London 2012 Olympics. Such protests can be seen as both a security threat and an embarrassment to the host country. Understandably, Government officials are keen to avoid tarnishing the much-awaited events of the coming summer with angry crowds or vocal protesters.
However, the means by which they intend to do so are disappointing at best.
We at Big Brother Watch understand that the realities of events such as the Olympics mean security concerns are much greater than usual. As huge numbers of people swarm to one of the most global and symbolic events in the world, police and security will be confronted with major challenges requiring intensive training and quick and reasoned decision-making. The reality is that any demonstration or protest can pose a very real threat to safety in London and the Olympic village for athletes, spectators and Londoners alike. Terrorism threats and civil action can create chaos and public disturbance, which we have seen first-hand over the last year during protests against the cuts and the UK riots. It is, therefore, hugely important to be aware of these risks and realities and to provide adequate security to ensure the events go off without a hitch.
Nevertheless, it is not necessary to do so by limiting the rights to free speech and a peaceful protest.
However justified the concerns for security, by taking this kind of action, the government, also appear to be keen on curbing free speech. Regardless of the time or place, intentionally limiting the public’s right to protest is uncalled for and will inevitably be met with resistance. Civil liberties campaigners will be quick to say that inhibiting such rights is a clear violation of the law and such a move will surely not be appreciated by lawyers, activists, or anyone interested in free speech, come to think of it.
Sheffield University professor Colin Hay said in response to these moves that if you attempt to limit the rights of individuals to a peaceful protest, then you invariably give them a reason to protest. I’m inclined to agree and sympathetic to those who would feel slighted by these moves.
Rolling back civil liberties in the name of good PR or because security is shamefully unable to protect the public from or prevent security threats is simply unacceptable. I’ve quoted him countless times, but I think this story warrants consultation of the brilliant statement of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary security deserve neither.”