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Israel-Gaza protests have cost police at least £25 million so far – but can you put a price on free speech?

Eric Heinze, Professor of Law and Humanities from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London has written for 'The Conversation' on the cost of ‘free’ speech.

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A recent UK government report has tallied the costs for policing demonstrations about the Gaza war since last October. The first two months alone topped £25 million nationally, and the protests have continued, attended by tens of thousands of marchers.

In a democracy, we expect clarity about public spending, but the costs arising from the scope and frequency of these recent marches have triggered doubts about the price of political protests – under a government that has already cracked down on our rights to demonstrate, and with an already severely stretched police force.

We have always known that spending in one area reduces the cash available for another, and yet rarely have we heard calls to spend less on health care so we can spend more on free speech.

But Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson, chair of the parliamentary committee who published the report, has suggested that continued protests could divert resources away from fighting crime.

In publishing this report, the government is effectively asking the public: how much free speech are you willing to pay for?

The cost of ‘free’ speech

In the UK, indeed throughout the English-speaking world, we have long assumed that free speech should be, well, free.

Even among our greatest thinkers on the topic – John Stuart Mill leaps to mind – free speech was formulated as a so-called “negative” right. This meant that for an individual to speak freely it sufficed for government to stay out of our lives: to do nothing. And surely it would cost nothing for the government to do nothing.

Yet even in Mill’s 19th century, that belief was inaccurate since policing cost money back then too. Today, even at non-political events like carnivals or concerts, citizens expect enough of a police presence to ensure things like public safety and the free flow of pedestrian and street traffic. For large and regularly repeated events like mass protests, the bill swiftly skyrockets.

And while some may think that social media activism has replaced street demos, the opposite is true. Electronic speech means that in-person events can be announced instantaneously to users far and wide, allowing unprecedented speed and levels of mobilisation.

The role of police at protests

The policing of public speech serves two functions. The police must protect protesters, as well as onlookers and passersby, from dangers or excessive disruption.

They must also ensure that no one is speaking or acting in ways prohibited by law. In Britain as in most democracies, certain forms of expression identified as hateful are illegal, though the law around what counts as “hateful” is complex. Other actions, like rock throwing and defacing property, are also forbidden.

Met Police commissioner Mark Rowley has clashed with prime minister Rishi Sunak over how police have handled the protests. Sunak suggested in a press conference that police are managing, not policing marches. In response, Rowley has said that police are being simultaneously criticised for being too heavy-handed, and too lenient – “woke and fascist” at once. Rowley said that 360 arrests have been made at protests.

Despite the Conservative party’s periodic nods to free speech, the last few years have seen crackdowns and restrictions on people’s rights to protest, including through a new public order law.

We find ourselves in a situation where half the budget seems to be spent on stopping us from speaking while the other half is spent on enabling us to speak.

The government report concludes that if protests continue at their current scale and frequency, the Home Office should consider new guidelines for protest organisers. These might include requiring a notice period of more than the current six days, to allow police to prepare better.

Yet it is unclear how much cost-saving that kind of proposal can bring about. A notice period is just another limit on speech, given that protests often work best through their immediacy and spontaneity. What appears to be a proposal for efficient policing strays too close to being a limit on speech dressed up as a public interest.

The problem is that limits on our civil rights and liberties have always been dressed up as public safety and public order measures. Recent examples include the protesters detained during King Charles’s 2023 coronation parade before they had even begun any protest, on the suspicion that they might be planning to disturb the peace.

Or the arrests at vigils held for Sarah Everard, the young woman kidnapped, raped, and murdered in 2021 by a Met police officer. For this, the police were sharply criticised and later forced to pay out damages to some of those arrested at a peaceful vigil, policed with a heavy hand under existing lockdown rules.

Of course, when the police “pay out”, it is taxpayers who do the paying. Which brings us back to the question at hand: how much is our free speech worth?

If we are not willing to reduce spending in other sectors, or to raise taxes across the board to safeguard people’s rights to demonstrate, the alternative may mean accepting a society where opportunities for public protest become ever more rare.

This article was first published in 'The Conversation' on 6 March 2024.

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