Oxford Civil Liberties Society in conversation

Image: OCLS’ banner, reading ‘OCLS/Oxford Civil Liberties Society’ on a blue-grey background with Lady Liberty holding scales in coral red.

In the wake of a bill proposed by the government which would have severe consequences on the right to protest in the UK, students at Oxford have founded a Society for Civil Liberties. The Flete asked them some topical questions. 

Why do we need a Civil Liberties Society?

Civil liberties are fundamental to our democracy and they are under threat. While the suspension of normal life due to the pandemic will be temporary, the dangerous precedent the government is setting will be permanent unless we oppose it. The pandemic had already created an opportunity for the government to crack down on peaceful protests, but the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently being discussed in Parliament, is at risk of jeopardising this freedom further. Springing from a personal dislike of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Extinction Rebellion, the Bill intends to give the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, powers to create new laws without the approval of Parliament to define “serious disruption” to communities and organisations, using which the police can arbitrarily crack down on protests. The proposed law also includes the offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.” The Home Secretary appears to have forgotten that exercising free speech often causes a nuisance to someone. By imposing these disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest, the government is demonstrating their contempt for the very cornerstones of democracy.

Civil Liberties have always been important—sadly it has taken a pandemic and multiple  demonstrations to highlight this. While the Bill stands a good chance of passing, that does not mean that the fight will be over. Our civil liberties were hard-won and they should not be relinquished without a fight. 

What do Civil Liberties mean in a Modern Age?

Civil liberties are more important now than ever before. The right to free speech and protest gives all citizens the power to stand up to the government and voice their concerns. The police already have extensive powers to restrict protests but this legislation seeks to increase them further at the cost of fundamental rights. At a time when the pandemic has already handed great power and responsibility to the Government, this new legislation represents an opportunistic attempt to permanently erode our civil liberties. 

Therefore, in a modern age, civil liberties remain something worth kicking up a fuss about. Something worth fighting for. Civil liberties have always been a two-way street, allowing us to criticise and be criticised in equal measure. Thus, these freedoms are as important as ever; it has taken an attempt to deprive us of them to make us all realise this. 

What are the consequences of the government encroaching on our civil liberties? 

The precedents for this, both historical and modern, are clear. Depriving citizens of civil liberties is a frequent precursor to the unlawful establishment of a police state, which actively puts these measures in place to prevent any sort of accountability. As such, it is imperative that these freedoms be preserved absolutely. To do anything else would be to make a concession on that which cannot be conceded—basic Human Rights. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration states “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” A government which would arbitrarily decide what is peaceful and what is not would be depriving its citizens of this fundamental democratic right. Reducing the right to protest sets a worrying precedent and demonstrates the contempt this government has for civil liberties. 

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