I was at the march against antiSemitism in London on Sunday, but did not witness the arrest of Tommy Robinson. I’m thankful for that because I wouldn’t have known how to react in my capacity as head of the Free Speech Union. Whether the Met was right to arrest him (and subsequently charge him) requires careful thought and the fact that the answer isn’t obvious makes me sympathise with the operational commander who had to make a decision.
My gut says it was an abuse of police powers. Section 35 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 empowers the police to order someone to leave an area if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the behaviour of the person has contributed to, or is likely to contribute to, people in the locality feeling harassed, alarmed or distressed. The organisers of Sunday’s march – the Campaign Against Antisemitism – had made it clear in advance that Robinson wasn’t welcome, so it’s safe to assume that they at any rate felt alarmed when he showed up. The police say they only arrested him after he repeatedly refused to go quietly, and failing to comply with a s.35 dispersal request is an offence.
But do the organisers of a public protest have a right to stipulate in advance who cannot attend and expect the police to remove them if they do? Section 36 of the same Act says that when deciding whether to issue such a directive, the police must have ‘particular regard to the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly’ as set out in Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. What if the organisers had said they didn’t want the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown there because she once described Israel as ‘more wicked and dangerous than Hamas’? I doubt the police would have arrested her.