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Blanket ban on marches in six London boroughs violates freedom of speech, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE/IFEX) - London, 02.09.2011 - ARTICLE 19 is concerned about the blanket 30-day ban on all marches in six London boroughs, approved on 23 August 2011 by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Theresa May, on request of the Metropolitan Police. The blanket ban restricts freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in a broad way and goes beyond what is permissible under international and European legal standards. ARTICLE 19 calls for the blanket ban to be reversed immediately.

The ban applies to any organisation planning to march in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Islington and the City and lasts for 30 days from today, under the Public Order Act. Originally, the ban was issued specifically for the march of the English Defence League (EDL) in Tower Hamlets due to take place on Saturday, 3 September, but was extended to all demonstrations in the respective area for 30 days.

ARTICLE 19 finds this blanket ban on marches to be both broad and excessive, and in violation of both international and UK laws on freedom of expression and assembly. The ban on all marches does not meet the requirements of the "three-part test" outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in the European Convention, the two pillars of human rights protection. Because interference with freedom of expression and freedom of assembly is an extremely serious matter, it is only permissible under very narrowly drawn circumstances. At the same time, freedom of expression should be the rule and limitations the exception; while the limitations should always leave the essence of the right intact.

When examined under the three-part test, the blanket ban on all marches fails to meet especially the requirement of necessity. The requirement of necessity stipulates that if there exist alternative measures that are less intrusive but that would accomplish the same goal, the chosen measure is in fact not "necessary". Further, any measures taken must restrict the right to freedom of expression as little as possible and not restrict speech in a broad and untargeted way, or go beyond the zone of harmful speech. ARTICLE 19 believes that the blanket 30-day ban on all marches in the London boroughs fails to meet these criteria. In protecting public order, it is not possible to ban all protests. The ban, as it stands, prohibits all marches, no matter what their cause or nature, including marches such as protests against NHS reforms, student protests, or marches for peace in the Middle East.

The world is watching the UK's every move in reaction to the riots. Any curbing of human rights, including blanket bans on protests in the capital, sends out a dangerous message about the UK's human rights commitments. Last month, ARTICLE 19 opposed the attempts to introduce measures to control social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger, in the aftermath of the UK riots. The blanket ban on all marches, which in effect bans a broad range of legitimate speech, is yet another inappropriate reaction to riots and to problems that should instead be tackled by comprehensive measures.

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