WE WELCOME the clarity provided by High Court judge Justice Joan Charles this month in relation to the right to engage in one-man protests and the provisions of the decades-old Summary Offences Act.
One-man protests have been a part of our democratic traditions for some time now.
Whether we think of the dedication of activist Wendell Eversley who, for years, agitated for a proper reckoning with the attempted coup of 1990 or Eden Shand who highlighted environmental causes, such peaceful activities have long been part and parcel of our public discourse.
Yet, it appears in recent times there have been problems in ascertaining the limits of this entitlement.
The law regulates public meetings and marches in this country, outlining a process by which organisers must seek permission from the police. However, these provisions only refer to “gatherings of persons” or “pedestrians” and there is no ban on one-man protests.
Yet one-man protests frequently attract the attention of officers who have sometimes inquired as to whether the protester has obtained permission, in the process suggesting trained policemen hold the belief that such permission is needed.
The case the judge was ruling on is a good example of this.
A political activist was reportedly on three occasions told or otherwise led to believe by key legal personnel within the police service that her protests had to stop because they required approval.
The activist took the matter to court, asking it to interpret the law.
This interpretation summons was thrown out by the judge on the basis that, in her view, the law is so clear as to not even raise the issue of ambiguity.
“There is no requirement that an individual is required to notify and/or apply for the consent of the Commissioner of Police to conduct a one-man silent protest,” Justice Charles ruled in a case that strongly reaffirms, post-covid19, a foundational right within our Constitution.
“There is nothing to interpret.”
However, it is clear the police found something to misinterpret in recent years, leading the judge to note that an arbitrary application of the law raises the spectre of discriminatory conduct on the part of public officials.
“The conduct of the police raises even more fundamental issues regarding the right to equality of treatment from a public authority in the exercise of its functions under section 4(d) of the Constitution.”
“It is plainly discriminatory and fundamentally unfair for the police to demand that the claimant obtain prior permission for her one-man silent protest and disrupt her other protests while threatening to arrest and charge her while others are allowed to protest without any permission.”
The functions of the police are too important, too sensitive for these words to be ignored.