Anti-royal protester arrests fuel free speech debate in U.K.

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: Queen Elizabeth II’s death sparks new criticism of monarchy’s colonial past

London — As the U.K. observes an official period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, a number of arrests of protesters critical of the monarchy at public events in recent days have stoked simmering concerns over free speech in Great Britain.

In Oxford, England, 45-year-old Symon Hill said he was briefly detained Sunday and then let go by police after shouting “Who elected him?” during a proclamation ceremony for King Charles III. He said he was handcuffed and driven home by police.

An anti-Royal demonstrator protests outside Palace of Westminster, central London on September 12, 2022, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8.


In Edinburgh, a 22-year-old man was arrested after heckling Prince Andrew during the procession of the queen’s coffin through the city on Monday and charged with breaching the peace. Another 22-year-old woman was also arrested and charged in Scotland for holding up a sign with a curse word that disparaged imperialism and the monarchy.

In London, a protester holding a sign saying “Not my king” was ushered away from the Palace of Westminster by police.

A 36-year-old lawyer later said he filmed himself being questioned by police officers in London’s Parliament Square as he held a blank piece of paper. He said the officer had told him they were concerned he might write a protest statement on the paper, “because someone might be offended.”

“The public absolutely have a right to protest, and we have been making this clear to all officers involved in the extraordinary policing operation currently in place, and we will continue to do so,” London’s Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of interactions between officers and the public at this time have been positive as people have come to the Capital to mourn the loss of Her Late Majesty the Queen.”

Freedom of speech?

In April, a new policing law came into effect that curtails the right to peaceful protest across the country. The new rules have given law enforcement agencies powers to shut down a demonstration if they deem it too “disruptive” or “noisy.”

It is unclear if any of those demonstrating against the monarchy in recent days were arrested under the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, as there are other rules on the books that can be used by police to shut down a peaceful protest.

“It is very worrying to see the police enforcing their broad powers in such a heavy-handed and punitive way to clamp down on free speech and expression,” Jodie Beck, Policy and Campaigns Officer at the rights group Liberty, said in a statement.

“From restrictions on protest in the policing act to further attacks in the Public Order Bill — which rehashes the draconian measures thrown out of the act, including protest banning orders and expansions of stop and search powers — the government is making it harder for people to stand up for what they believe in. It is vital that instead of weakening our freedom of expression, the government safeguards our protest rights,” Beck said.

Criticism of the monarchy

The arrests come amid a wider discussion about the queen’s legacy and the role of the royal family in the modern world. Her death has sparked an outpouring of praise and grief from across the globe, but it has also reignited criticism of the monarchy’s role in British colonialism and empire.

“The ‘British empire’ declared a war on these shores, against this country’s First Nations peoples. This led to massacres. And you want a minute’s silence from me?” Indigenous Australian senator Lidia Thorpe wrote in an op-ed in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Australia — a member of the the Commonwealth of Nations, almost all of which were formerly under British rule — will hold a national day of mourning for the queen on September 22.

“Their war continues and is still felt today — on our children, our men, our land, our water, the air we breathe. Yet we’re meant to kneel to the colonising force with our hands on our hearts?” Thorpe wrote.

Dr. Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University in the U.K., told CBS News that his father experienced intense racism when he moved to the U.K. from Jamaica, and that the monarchy grew to symbolise that for him.

“The queen became an image really quickly of Britain — she was the head of state of Britain, obviously — of the racism that he was facing,” Andrews said.

Britain examines its slave-trade past


In discussions about the queen’s legacy and the monarchy, Andrews said that “when all you get is this reverence, it is an alienating feeling. It is further marginalizing Black and Brown communities in the country.”

Feelings that the queen and the monarchy are connected to racism and colonialism, “are just as legitimate feelings as the feelings of reverence and sadness for some people in the U.K.,” he said.