Protest restrictions are a necessary evil

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On 2nd December 2020, the Government introduced a new tier system which prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than six people in tiers three and four. This legislation includes groups who intend to protest. Police have the power to disperse, fine, or arrest those who break the restrictions. Many people have been outraged at the Government’s curtailment of our rights, bringing wider implications on our personal liberty and violates our license to free speech.

However, there has been a widespread misunderstanding about the Government’s restrictions on protests. There is no unconditional limitation on demonstrations. Instead, certain conditions must be satisfied for it to be permissible to protest. In summary, those conditions stipulate that an institution must organise the protest, carry out a risk assessment, and take reasonable measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The pandemic presents a sufficiently good reason for limiting people’s ability to protest

Although the Government’s conditions have indeed impeded our right to protest, many have mistakenly thought our rights have also been dismissed. Instead, our right to freedom of expression and our right to freedom of assembly are qualified rights and not absolute rights, meaning that it is permissible for the Government to restrict them if it is in the public interest. In this case, the coronavirus regulations that impede our right to protest represent a proportionate response to the pandemic’s threat for public safety and health. Many consider the limitation on the right to freedom of assembly to be impermissible. It raises more comprehensive questions about the extent to which the Government can edit our rights to suit their objectives. Some have gone as far as to criticise the government restrictions as a new form of totalitarianism.

Any measures that stop people expressing their disapproval suggests a reluctance from the Government to listen to its citizens. There is evidence suggesting that outdoor protests do not risk increasing the spread of the virus, which points to the idea that restricting demonstrations is a political choice instead of a medical one. It seems as though mentions of the risk of coronavirus when protesting is merely to silence the movement. Governments should respect their citizens by allowing them to express themselves – and any attempt to violate this is authoritarian.

A protest is an expression of our beliefs, and many believe this right should be honoured, regardless of the risk it poses to public health. Protesters for racial equality related to the Black Lives Matter movement feel that on balance, the cost of getting coronavirus is worth the risk to speak out for equality. The calculation of the greater cost to society: spreading coronavirus, or not protesting for racial justice, is a complex one.

The calculation of the greater cost to society: spreading coronavirus, or not protesting for racial justice, is a complex one

However, I think the conditions set on protesting are fair and are permissible limitations of freedom. I do not feel that coronavirus regulations are being misused as a means of silencing free expression. It is not as though other forms of expression, such as social media, are being restricted. Similarly, protests are not prevented altogether, but instead, they just have (reasonable) conditions placed upon them. In this case, the pandemic presents a sufficiently good reason for limiting people’s ability to protest. Any gathering risks spreading of the disease and subsequently risks more deaths. Irrespective of any measures protestors may take to reduce coronavirus spread during demonstrations, there is no entirely safe way to protest – masks and hand sanitiser do not altogether remove the threat. Coronavirus will likely spread among those shouting out their virus-loaded cries for justice. This is not to say that the matters of protests are unimportant, but that saving lives is more important than demonstrating in such a physical capacity. Instead, expressions of dissent should occur through other mediums, of which we are spoilt for choice today.

The question of the limits of our freedom still stands. Should our freedom to protest be unrestricted, or are there cases, such as a pandemic, where it is morally unobjectionable to restrict it? Personally, I think we should not have the freedom to put others lives at risk through protest, regardless of the urgency of the matter. Instead, those committed to speaking out should do so through safer methods.

Illustration by Verity Laycock.

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