Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Protest: No Banners on My Land!

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Protest: No Banners on My Land!

Article excerpt

You thought protests in public places were legal in Britain? Wrong. This autumn, the Transport and General Workers' Union planned to march on Canary Wharf in London to protest against the low wages of its cleaning staff, but the owners of the estate got a high court injunction to stop the protest. As Canary Wharf is private property, its owners are largely free to allow or deny access to whomever they wish, for whatever reason.

On the same principle, in 1998, a group was denied access to a shopping mall in Tyne and Wear where it wanted to distribute leaflets opposing plans to build on a local park. The case went to the European Court of Human Rights, which decided last year that the exclusion of the leaf-leteers did not violate rights of freedom of expression or association. The court said those rights could be exercised elsewhere, by protesting on neighbouring land or writing to a newspaper.

Yet a particular plot of land may be uniquely positioned to advance the cause of a protest. Canary Wharf is clearly the most effective place to bring the cleaners' wages to the attention not only of others working in the estate, but also to visitors shopping or doing business there. In other cases, what counts is the importance of the private owner. The investment decisions of multinational banks, for example, may have more impact on society than many government decisions.

The tension between the power of property owners and the right to protest has increased with the privatisation of conventional public spaces. …

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