Police arrest anti-monarchy protesters at royal events in England, Scotland

LONDON — Lawyers and free-speech activists are ringing alarm bells after reports emerged in recent days of police detaining, moving and in some cases even arresting protesters at the events marking the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of her eldest son, Charles.

People have been picked up by the police as they shouted against the crown, heckled royals marching by and carried anti-monarchist signs — and in one case, a blank sheet of paper. The police crackdown on such protests has raised questions about freedom of speech during this fraught period for the United Kingdom.

On Twitter, the hashtag “NotMyKing” — after the slogan featured on the sign of a protester who was led away by police in London in a video Monday — was trending early Tuesday. Lawmakers have called on authorities to respect the rights of those who believe the queen’s death should herald the end of the monarchy.

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“No one should be arrested for just expressing republican views,” said Zarah Sultana, a member of the opposition Labor Party representing Coventry South in Parliament. “Extraordinary — and shocking — that this needs saying.”

Reports of arrests first emerged Sunday, when a document formally proclaiming Charles as king was read aloud in locations across the United Kingdom. In Oxford, Symon Hill, 45, was arrested after he shouted, “Who elected him?” as the proclamation was read. In a blog post describing the incident, Hill claimed the police handcuffed him and did not tell him what he was being arrested for.

The Thames Valley police confirmed to British media outlets that a “45-year-old man was arrested in connection with a disturbance that was caused during the county proclamation ceremony of King Charles III in Oxford.” It said a man was later “de-arrested” and was cooperating with police as they “investigate a public order offense” — although Hill wrote on Twitter that he hadn’t engaged with the police since his initial arrest.

In the United Kingdom, an arrest is more akin to a detention in the United States, however individuals who are charged do end up having to appear before a judge.

In Edinburgh, a 22-year-old woman was arrested outside St. Giles’s Cathedral, where the queen lay at rest at the beginning of the week, for breaching the peace. She was pictured holding a sign that featured a more vulgar version of the slogan, “Down with the imperialism.”

The woman was later charged under a section of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act of 2010 that outlaws “threatening or abusive” behavior, an advocacy group she works for said in a statement.

Incidents like these highlight the gaps in protesters’ legal rights in the United Kingdom, Clive Stafford Smith, a civil rights attorney and dual British American national, told The Washington Post.

“For all the complacent publicity that this country is a country of free speech, the British really don’t get free speech in the way that Americans do,” he said.

In Britain, the Treason Felony Act of 1848 makes it a felony for anyone to commit acts intended to deprive the British sovereign of the “royal name of the imperial crown.” The act is not enforced today, said Stafford Smith, but “it’s still on the books.” Some police officers cracking down on protesters in recent days may be enforcing the Public Order Act of 1986 — “an incredibly vague statute that says anything that can provoke public disorder is left to the authority of the police to decide whether to arrest someone,” he added.

The recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022 has been heavily criticized for imposing restrictions on protests, although it’s not clear whether any of the protesters were charged under this act, as most of its provisions do not apply to Scotland.

Activist and lawyer Paul Powlesland said Monday that he was in Parliament Square in London and “held up a blank piece of paper” when a police officer asked him for his information. The officer apparently said “that if I wrote “Not My King” on it, he would arrest me under the Public Order Act because someone might be offended,” Powlesland wrote in a tweet.

A short clip of their interaction went viral on social media, prompting Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy to say in a statement Monday, “We have been making [the public’s right to protest] clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place and we will continue to do so.”

Incidents like these have been few and far between as millions of people across the country gather at various events during the 10-day mourning period declared to mark the queen’s passing. “The overwhelming majority of interactions between officers and the public at this time have been positive as people have come to the Capital to mourn the loss of Her Late Majesty the Queen,” Cundy said.

Some on social media, however, pointed to another form of censorship of anti-monarchy views — one based on peer pressure.

In his blog post, Hill, the Oxford protester, said that when he shouted, “Who elected him?” among the crowd, “two or three people near me told me to shut up.” And in Edinburgh, when a 22-year-old heckled Prince Andrew as the procession carrying the queen’s coffin marched down the Royal Mile, videos appeared to show the protester being violently pushed to the ground and shoved by two men in the crowd before the police pulled him away.

A Police Scotland spokesperson told The Washington Post via email that a 22-year-old was arrested and then “released on an undertaking to appear at Edinburgh Sheriff Court at a later date.”

“Detaining people for shouting republican slogans, even if they do so in a deliberately coarse and provocative way, is utterly un-British,” said Daniel Hannan, a member of the House of Lords. “I worry that our police are becoming more authoritarian and — worse — that a section of the public is cheering them on.”

“The right to dissent is never more important than at times of patriotic fervour,” George Monbiota British writer and activist, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

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