Leading article: Disorderly conduct

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The Independent Online

The Lord Chancellor had a torrid time yesterday attempting to defend the Government's record on free speech. Like the Prime Minister, Lord Falconer seems to believe that merely saying something makes it so. "We are a country that couldn't be freer," he informed the Today programme. Maya Evans, who has a criminal record for reading out a list of names near the gates of Downing Street, would be unlikely to agree.

Lord Falconer put up such an inept defence of the new law under which Ms Evans was arrested that one wondered if he was secretly attempting to undermine it. He declared that "there isn't a country in the world that does not take particular measures to protect its parliament" and asserted that the restrictions were essential to "avoid disorder" around the institutions of government. But when asked how it was that Britain had managed perfectly well without such a law for hundreds of years, the Lord Chancellor had no reply.

It is increasingly clear that Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which makes protests within 1km of Parliament Square illegal unless authorised by the police, is a terrible piece of legislation. It was designed to evict one long-standing protester from Parliament Square. It failed in this because the courts ruled it could not be applied retrospectively. But it has, whether the Government intended it or not, added significantly to the powers of the police.

The police now apparently have the right to harass any member of the public within the vicinity of Downing Street or the Houses of Parliament deemed to be a causing a nuisance. It is up to them to define what constitutes a "protest". They are clearly not averse to using intimidating tactics in the course of their duties, as the deployment of 14 officers in two minibuses to arrest Ms Evans demonstrates. All of this diminishes the status of the public areas of Westminster as democratic spaces.

Defenders of this legislation claim that all Ms Evans had to do was inform the police that she would be demonstrating. But the idea of having to apply for a licence to protest is anathema to our liberal traditions. It is true that the police are required to approve licence applications unless public safety or national security is compromised. But that leaves dangerously vague grounds for rejection. The police should be forced to apply to the courts to ban a demonstration.

Mr Blair and Lord Falconer can proclaim their deep respect for Britain's traditions of free speech all they like. But the fact re-mains that an Act pushed through by their Government has had the effect of reducing it. In this instance, actions have spoken louder than words.