Protest guidance: know your rights

There are times when we need to take to the streets to get our voices heard. Protest plays a key role in Friends of the Earth’s history. Many of our campaigns have involved public stunts, community actions and big marches. This is, in part, how we achieve change. 

In 2022 and 2023, new laws were introduced in the UK to stifle civil rights movements and suppress our rights to protest on issues like climate change and inequality.

This guide equips you with information about protest law, police powers, and your rights and responsibilities when planning or attending a protest. Please note, it does not constitute legal advice, which must always be tailored to the specific facts of a given case or circumstance.

Remember: protesting is legal and everyone has the right to protest and to express themselves. It may seem like protest is banned altogether, but this isn’t the case.

Why's this guidance important? 

The purpose of this guidance is to help you to understand the new laws, and to support you to plan or participate in protest actions. And it’s also here to help reduce the impacts these draconian pieces of legislation are attempting to have on our democratic rights.

The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and Public Order Act 2023 are particularly aimed at movements and activists that use direct action and civil disobedience against government or corporate inaction on the climate emergency, however many of their provisions impact on protest more widely.

By doing so, the government aims to silence activists and communities, rather than meaningfully engage with and address their concerns. These new laws use vague language to expand police powers, and significantly broaden the definition of “serious disruption” in an apparent attempt to limit protest action as much as possible.  

Why we must protect our right to protest

Watch our Co-Executive Director, Miriam Turner, give a TEDx Talk on how our protest rights are under threat and why we must protect them.

Protest in action

Our network has a long history of using protest in its campaigning:

  • West Cumbria and North Lakes Friends of the Earth co-organises a monthly “Speakers' Corner” at the site of the Whitehaven coal mine. The group works with others including Coal Action Network, Tipping Point UK, Extinction Rebellion, Campaign Against Climate Change, trade unions and local community members. Groups also invite pro-miners to share why they support the mine. This effective action is growing in scale as more community members learn and engage with the Whitehaven coal mine campaign.
  • Eastbourne Friends of the Earth held 2 massive rallies to stop its council selling off farms on the Eastbourne Downland estate. The first was held on a cold day in December on the Downs, and the second was a march through town. These actions had an amazing turnout, and alongside a lot of meetings, publicity and lobbying, resulted in a win for the community –  the Downland was saved!
  • No Gas Caverns organised a “Boots on the Beach” action demonstrating against storing gas in Larne Lough, Northern Ireland.  

This guidance is based on, and draws significantly from, material from Liberty. We'd like to thank them for this, and for their kindness and support for local action groups. Find out more about Liberty, the actions they take for civil rights and how we can work together. We're grateful to Shahida Begum barrister at Garden Court Chambers for reviewing and editing this guidance.  

Disclaimer: this guidance is designed to provide an overview of the types of protest-related offences, the sentences they carry upon conviction, and some practical ways to approach organising and participating in a protest. It does not constitute legal advice, which must always be tailored to the specific facts of a given case or circumstance. It’s also important to note that some of the offences described in this document are very new, with few or no prosecutions relating to them to date.  

How does the new policing act affect my protest rights? Liberty.

Public Order Act: New protest offences & "Serious Disruption". Liberty.

Protest – Your Rights. Liberty and National Union of Students. 2020. This guidance is now out of date, however it provides detailed background information on protest laws.

EXPLAINER: The Public Order Act 2023. Netpol. 18 May 2023.

How to organise a protest. Liberty.

Police powers of arrest. Liberty.

Protests and marches: letting the police know. UK Government.

Talking to the Cops – A Guide for Protest Groups. Netpol. 13 March 2019.

Explainer: New regulations re-defining Serious Disruption to the life of the community’ enhance police powers to restrict your protest. Liberty.

Five pieces of law every protester should know. The Guardian. 1 May 2012. This article is more than 10 years old however it’s an easy read with a good snapshot of information.