Right to protest legally upheld for UK anti-war demonstrators

By staff writers
December 13, 2006

Peace and civil liberties campaigners have welcomed a legal victory by a group of UK anti-war demonstrators who have established that their rights to public protest were violated when police stopped them from attending a non-violent action against the Iraq war at an airbase.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal had already ruled that the police acted unlawfully in holding protesters on their coaches – which they claimed was done to “protect their lives” from the consequences of a protest on a military installation.

Today the Law Lords went further by ruling that the police also violated the right to freedom of expression and lawful assembly, overturning a previous High Court ruling and dismissing a cross-appeal by the police against the unlawful decision to hold protesters on the coaches.

The case goes back three years. Some 120 anti-Iraq war protesters were held on coaches by police near RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, in March 2003.

The decision has been welcomed by the Stop the War Coalition and by Christian and Muslim peace campaigners – and especially by those directly involved.

Jane Laporte, under whose name the case was brought, said: "I am absolutely overjoyed. The Lords have confirmed that freedom to protest is something that should be treasured in this country and police don't have the right to take it away."

There has been concern about the growing tendency of the government to restrict freedom of protest – including rights of assembly around Westminster itself, following a long battle by politicians to remove Christian peace activist Brian Haw.

Gloucestershire Police said it was "disappointed" with the decision, which it accepted, and added that officers acted in "good faith", according to the BBC.

Alex Gask, legal officer for human rights group Liberty, which had intervened as an interested party in the appeal, declared: "Nothing less than our freedom of speech was at stake in this case. Unmerited concerns about some future breach of the peace cannot justify the denial of this fundamental right."

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