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The duty to facilitate the right to protest

In the handling of public assemblies, the police and law enforcement have a duty to facilitate and protect people’s right to protest.
Riot police detain an anti-war protester in Moscow, March 2022

In the handling of public assemblies, the police and law enforcement have a duty to facilitate and protect people’s right to protest. Generally, the peacefulness of an assembly should be presumed and the overall policing approach should be driven by communication, seeking to prevent conflicts from occurring through dialogue and mediation, as well as to de-escalate and peacefully settle any conflicts that do occur.

Additional principles of proper policing include:

  • The police must act neutrally and never take sides against or in favour of the protest.
  • The police must enable protesters to be heard and seen by their audience. For instance, public officials, the general public, photographers, counter-protesters.
  • As a starting point, the physical appearance (equipment, numbers) and attitude displayed by the police should be non-threatening in order to not fuel tensions.
  • Weapons, including less lethal equipment such as batons and shields, should only be used where provided for by law, necessary, and always in a proportionate way. This includes a requirement that only the minimum amount of force necessary should ever be used in situations that cannot be contained by any lesser means.
  • The police should facilitate spontaneous peaceful protests even if a law exists requiring organisers to give notification in advance of assembly. For instance, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, organisers of marches or parades must give the police at least 28 days’ notice of their plans. A shorter time period may be allowed if earlier notification isn’t possible – for instance if the march is being organised as a result of an unforeseen event. Conditions and restrictions, such as on the parade route, may be imposed for reasons such as the avoidance of possible public disorder.
  • The collection and processing of personal information, such as through recording devices, closed-circuit television, undercover policing, or other surveillance, must comply with existing privacy laws and protections.

Example of police fulfilling duty to facilitate in UK

There have been plenty of large demonstrations in London, including marches against the Iraq War and the UK leaving or staying in the European Union, among others. They were attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all parts of the UK and disrupted large parts of the city, but the facilitating role the police played ensured they took place peacefully without major incident.

However, not all protests are managed as successfully by the Police and different protesting groups are often policed using more forceful tactics. For example, during Black Lives Matter Protests in June 2020 in London, police used excessive force against protesters, including the confinement of people to a narrow space (“kettling”) and the use of horses to disperse crowds via charges and baton strikes against demonstrators. Protest organisers have also found themselves targeted for surveillance and legal observers at these demonstrations have also had force used against them. Read more here

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Protect the Protest: Using Our Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Expression

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