The white noise of protest
The right to freedom of expression does not entitle indefinite occupation of public land. Brett Lock of Harry's Place responds to Index's support for Parliament Square protesters
02 Jul 10

Harry's place logoThe right to freedom of expression does not entitle indefinite occupation of public land.  Brett Lock of Harry’s Place responds to Index’s support for Parliament Square protesters

The right to freedom of expression is precisely that: a right to receive and impart ideas. It does not enable a man to live in a tent on public land for nearly a decade, if he has no independent right to do so.

It is legal to advertise goods and services but illegal to fly-poster the side of a public building with advertising material.  There is no law against singing sea shanties, but you may be ejected from a cinema if you decide to do so in the middle of a film. You cannot play a country and western record at top volume at 2am. All these examples restrict what can be said, expressed or broadcast, but none are forms of censorship. They are merely controls on the time and place of expression.

This is a crucial distinction. Censorship seeks to silence and suppress ideas. Telling a person to shut up at this particular moment, in this particular place, is not censorship. Doing so does not seek to suppress their ideas. It protects the rights of others to peace and quiet. All reasonable people understand this.

So, what of Brian Haw, the “protester” who has lived in a tent on Parliament Square for almost a decade, wafting from one issue to another and drawing all manner of fringe causes to his orbit? Recently I walked past and there was a wall of placards claiming the Freemasons had murdered a range of people, including the late wife of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in a car accident. Haw also believes that 9/11 was an “inside job”.

That said, we should not be distracted by the fact that many of the views presented for our consumption by the Haw camp are quite mad. They are ideas and they are being expressed. That is sufficient for their protection. That is why temporary and short-lived demonstrations, in the symbolically important environment of Parliament Square, should most certainly be permitted.

However, I would not be allowed to install a booth providing information about the products and services of my business in Parliament Square or on any other public land. I would not be allowed to set up a small stage and host an alternative Glastonbury. So why should Haw and his colourful troupe be any different? Disseminating his ideas he is free to do. He may push leaflets through our doors. He may participate in radio phone-ins. He can set up a website. He can even hold a daily protest. But what he can’t do is live in a tent on public ground indefinitely merely because he’s scrawled a political slogan on a bit of old cardboard.

Haw’s protest is repetitive to the point where it is just white noise. He can’t shut up because he’s afraid not for his ideas (which are expressed daily by millions) but for himself: that he might be an irrelevance without his tent and his bit of cardboard.

Quite frankly, I am alarmed that Index on Censorship has taken such an
unsophisticated view of this case, and indeed, is enabling the self-destructive behaviour of a man who strikes me as quite possibly mentally ill. I feel so strongly about it, that I’ve written an article on the subject. But I most emphatically do not have the right to express my opposition by setting up a permanent camp outside Index on Censorship Chair Jonathan Dimbleby’s house.

Or do I?

Brett Lock was the editor of Gay Humanist Quarterly. He is also a regular contributor to the political blog Harry’s Place and a campaigner with the gay human rights group, OutRage!.

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