The English Defence League and the right to protest

In this week’s East London Advertiser, Sabby Dhalu, joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism, and Padraig Reidy, senior writer at Index on Censorship, debate the limits of the right to protest and freedom of expression.

Padraig Reidy, senior writer at Index on Censorship

The English Defence League is a controversial organisation, with links to the emerging global “counter-jihadist” movement, a movement steeped in Islamophobia.

None of this is in dispute. Is this reason enough to ban it from marching in east London? Well, no. Because if the right to protest is to be meaningful, then it must be a right that is open to all, no matter how objectionable their views.

In the late 1970s, American Nazis planned a march through Skokie, Illinois. They chose Skokie as it had not just a large Jewish population, but because many in the community were Holocaust survivors. This was a calculated insult, no doubt. But leading US civil rights organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union said that they would defend the Nazis’ right to march.

And they were correct to do so.

Defending that right is not the same as defending the views of Nazis or, in modern Britain, the EDL.

It is about defending the space for free speech for all of us.

No one knows when the wind may change and we may find our own views seen as beyond the pale.

Therefore it’s in everyone’s interest to defend the free expression space.

The right to protest can be curtailed in very limited circumstances, when there is a clear danger to public safety.

If public order is breached on the day, arrests may be made.

But we should always be wary of blanket bans on organisations or individuals marching in an area because we do not like what they say, no matter how offensive we find it. Because we never know who will have the power to ban whom, and one day, we could find ourselves on the receiving end.

Sabby Dhalu, joint secretary at Unite Against Fascism

The right to political protest is a fundamental tenant of any democracy and free society.

However the right to political protest and freedom of speech/expression has been subject to abuse by groups such as the English Defence League (EDL).

It claims it is opposed to terrorism and al-Qaeda-type organisations in order to gain traction with the mass population.

If this were the EDL’s real agenda and concern, surely it should protest outside government offices, Parliament, MI5 and MI6, as these are the bodies with the power, resources and intelligence to address terrorism.

In reality, the EDL is a fascist group that targets not only communities such as Muslims but also trade unions and left-wing movements. The EDL claims to speak for the white working class, but it attacks the union movement – the democratic and organised structures of the working class.

Such activity is not freedom of speech, it is exploitation and provocation.

That is why Unite Against Fascism (UAF) organises demonstrations against the EDL.

Most people in Britain abhor such behaviour and do not want the EDL in their area. We seek to unite the broadest coalition against the EDL, comprising faith communities, trade unions, political parties, LGBT groups and anyone who wishes to join us to oppose hatred.

We think it is important to voice opposition to the EDL when it demonstrates and to not leave the matter to the police, because the EDL is not a simple policing issue. History has taught us not to ignore fascism but to unite and stand up to it.