When and where should extremists be allowed to march?

Protests held by far right groups in ethnically diverse areas are provocation, but banning them can have undesired effects. Josh Black looks at a ban on the English Defence League in East London.

The case

Ethnic minorities account for nearly 35 per cent of the residents of Waltham Forest, a borough in East London, with most living in the town of Walthamstow. On 1 September 2012 the English Defence League (EDL), which claims to campaign against Islamic extremism but is often accused of being a racist organisation, sought to march through Walthamstow town centre to Council offices. Local residents arranged a counter-demonstration and blocked their progress, leading police to cancel the EDL march and ask its supporters to disperse.

Following the abortive march, the EDL declared its intention to return to Walthamstow at a later date. The local council sought and obtained an order by the Home Secretary that restricted the EDL to staging static protests in front of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster and residents of Waltham Forest to a static protest in Walthamstow. Some residents considered this unfair, calling police attempts to prevent the campaigners marching “a disgraceful attack on local democracy.”

Author opinion

This case raises a number of interesting questions. Which groups should have ‘special conditions’ imposed on their rights to free expression? Who should pay for the policing of these events? Is banning a march an example of the heckler’s veto?

Ultimately, law enforcement authorities have a duty of care to local communities that requires them to take steps to prevent violence, even when it remains to be proved that two groups holding radically different points of view will come to blows. On the other hand, in the American town of Skokie, where a planned march by neo-Nazis was successfully defended on free speech grounds, the group ultimately decided not to proceed once its members had seen the strength of local feeling.

- Josh Black

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Comments (2)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. People protest in order to have their voices heard, to bring awareness to their cause. I believe that we should protect the rights to march in protest of all citizens. However, the law should and does protect all citizens from acts of violence and damage too. I feel that although we should conserve everyone’s right to protest in marches, we should also take precautions in situations where citizens would likely get harmed and property get damaged. Therefore the protestors should be able to march, but have a designated route on which they walk with police constantly monitoring the march. Should something go wrong, the police could would immediately intervene and take control of the situation.

  2. I believe this to be a more complex problem than some may think. My own belief is that we should protect the rights to march in protest of all citizens. However the rule of law should and does protect all citizens from acts of violence and criminal damage. A great number of EDL members attend these marches for the trill of getting high on drink or drugs and participating in such recreational violence and criminal damage. The whole ethos of “football hooliganism” as morphed into the new Islamaphobia. Though they may make do with any minority individual as a target of recreational hate; if there’s no Muslims at hand. We should still try to give them as much freedom of speech as possible. The EDL and the majority of the British public are feeling sorry for themselves now that we have the ‘time of austerity’ . They fear Muslims and the dreaded foreigner are costing them money; however the EDL and yobbos generically are , with great pride wasting the budget allocated for just about everything. It cost a vast fortune to deal with yobbos; don’t worry about foreign aid, worry about yobbos. We also have the other end of the problem; the “Muslim Extremist” and any other groups to whom we should give the same rights to march and protest; but with the same rules that forbid violence or criminal damage. I also emphatically believe we should have the greatest freedom press possible. I have used many web sites and news channels, that most of the British public have not bothered with; and I have learned a great deal. We will certainly see more terrorist attacks, more diversity of method, and greater longevity. It would seem to me that it takes “two to tango” as they say. Albeit the authorities have played a disingenuous and sometimes exasperating role; now we have ‘down to earth’ enthusiasts who are genuinely keen to make Britain as violent as Syria; in the name of cheap larger.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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