Leading Article; Protest and survive: the fight to protect free speech goes on


Yesterday was a rare good day for free speech in Britain. The High Court granted the Heathrow operator, BAA, an injunction against three of the protest groups that are organising this summer's climate change camp outside the airport, but this falls far short of the type of restrictions the company originally wanted to impose on activists. Meanwhile, in another chamber of the same court, it was ruled that the police restrictions that have been placed on Westminster's most famous anti-war protestor, Brian Haw, are unlawful.

The Heathrow affair has generated some valuable publicity for the campaign to curb the expansion of the UK's airports. It is a safe bet that many more people are aware of the camp than were 10 days ago when this injunction was first proposed; not least those hundreds of thousands of members of groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Woodland Trust who found themselves at risk of being injuncted.

In this sense the BAA plan has backfired. The operator's proposal to cover the entire Piccadilly line of the London Underground under the injunction, which drew an instant rebuke from the London mayor Ken Livingstone, turns out to have been a tactical mistake. This arrogant approach seems to have contributed to Justice Caroline Swift's ruling that BAA should pay the costs of the protest groups.

But this injunction - in common with the official attempts to harass Mr Haw - have been deeply unsettling all the same. There was a distinctly unpleasant bullying tenor to BAA's proposed legal action. It was so far-reaching that the goal seemed to be less the protection of Heathrow's passengers from disruption, than the intimidation of protestors. And in these tactics, it is worryingly clear that BAA took its lead from the Government. The injunction, as originally framed, had all the sweeping and unreasonable features of a pre-emptive, anti-social behaviour order. And this proposed injunction, as with Asbos, would have represented a perversion of the legislation that brought it into effect. The 1997 Protection from Harassment Act was designed to protect vulnerable individuals from stalkers, not to shield corporations from legitimate protest. Yet that was the law on which BAA built its case.

The operator's citation of the UK terrorism threat as a justification for restricting peoples' movements was another disturbing echo of Government rhetoric. And it is unfortunate that Justice Swift, although she pruned out much of the injunction, seemed to accept this part of BAA's argument. The truth is that BAA's incompetent management, which has led to passengers being forced into long and exposed queues outside terminal buildings, has created a far greater terrorism risk than any environmental protest.

The other major disturbing aspect of this affair is money. If these protest groups had not been able to pay for a QC to argue their case, BAA might well have got its way. This has serious implications for free speech in modern Britain. The right to protest has been squeezed in recent years - and the Government has led the way in making it more difficult for political activists to make their voice heard.

Gordon Brown has signalled that the law forbiding unauthorised protests within 1km of Parliament - a law specifically designed to remove Mr Haw from Parliament Square - will be dropped. That would be welcome. But it would merely be a first step. The Government should dismantle the authoritarian legislative apparatus it has established by stealth in recent years. And in doing so it will send a firm message that public bodies in Britain - both governmental and commercial - have no right to gag their critics.

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