Around 1995/96, one of the reasons that the Free Range Network got together was to share information about the law, and the use of the law as part of environmental actions. Over the years that work has developed, and changed with the landscape of UK activism and the law, to support a wider group of activists beyond those who directly share their efforts with the Network.

After long reflection, now we’re overhauling the format of our work once again:

August Landmesser image
Spot the activist, wilfully – under the laws existing at that time – disrupting a public event.

In 2021, in the wake of the Government’s anti-protest proposals, we’ve taken the decision to scrap all our previous resources and start-over. The reason is very simple: Britain is slipping into an authoritarian elective dictatorship, as demonstrated by the recent revisions to or current plans to change various laws – from elections, to protest, to the censorship of journalism.

If the existing Tory government survives in its current form, or the drift to the reactionary right is not arrested in the interim, then we anticipate a sea-change in the public laws which regulate daily life; from on-line expression, to how we are able to express ourselves in the street. Never in over twenty-five years of our work together has the outlook been so bleak for free expression and political action in Britain.

In this new, and more testing environment we have to change our activities; to adapt to the changing legal framework, but at the same time press that framework in more legally precise ways to expose why it is dangerously authoritarian. Coming out of the restrictions of the pandemic, we’ll be working with groups to produce new resources over 2022 and 2023.

Our past work

Free Range Practice Guide No.4: ‘Protesting in Public’, 2002
Free Range Practice Guide No.4: ‘Protesting in Public’, 2002 – one of our earlier stand-alone guides to the law and activism.

Since we began work in the mid-1990s, the Free Range Network has been producing information to support local campaigns – created by activists in the Network pooling their knowledge and resources, to create legal and technical information that support particular types of campaign.

In the late 1990s that changed when, instead of producing information about doing a specific event/action, we shifted to providing general legal advice so that activists could improvise.

One of our earlier guides, ‘Protesting in Public’, summarised the main point of the law in 8 pages. This had been produced as part of our involvement in anti-capitalist protests from 1998 to 2001. Then the world changed, leading to a backlash against those movements.

In the wake of the post-11/9 restrictions, as part of the alleged ‘War on Terror’, protest action took a real hit. Under the banner of counter-terrorism, governments took the opportunity to crack-down on all forms of public political dissent about economic inequality and environmental destruction.

We had to change our approach.

Free Range Practice Guide No.4: ‘Protesting in Public’, 2002
‘NETCU, WECTU and NPOIU: Britain's Secretive Police Force’, 2009

Off the back of some high-profile harassment of particular activist groups – most notably the animal rights movement – we focussed our work on the changing nature of policing. In particular the introduction of the term, “domestic extremism”; a police label without any specific legal definition, most often used in media coverage to denigrate protest, and which sought to equate all forms of direct action protest with terrorism.

The result of this work led to the commissioning of a report, ‘NETCU, WECTU and NPOIU: Britain's Secretive Police Force’. The report lays out not only the legal basis of the post-11/9 crack-down on protest, and the rise of the ‘domestic extremist’ label, but also the economic background in the era leading up to the Crash of 2008 which made controlling protest imperative for the neoliberal political lobby.

‘The Protestagram’

Moving into the 2010s, as part of our work supporting anti-fracking campaigns, we saw there was a need for a more general guide to all aspects of protest law. Existing guides from other groups were too focussed on static demonstrations and pickets, rather than dealing with the law in general that applies anywhere in any circumstance.

‘The Protestagram’, 2017
The first version of ‘The Protestagram’, 2017.

The result of this work was ‘The Protestagram’, a large wall poster showing a flow chart that guides activists through different aspects of the law. Though initially created with the anti-fracking movement to serve their needs, the poster has since been used by anti-militarism and Extinction Rebellion groups.

Our present predicament is the government’s latest crack-down on many forms of dissent. It creates such a step-change in the legal framework, seemingly on-line as well as in real life, that it invalidates the entire poster and the way it presents the legal process.

In the interim, rather than remove it and lose its value altogether, we have labelled ‘The Protestagram’ as being ‘Out of Date’. It is usable, but once the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill is passed and commenced, many elements of the poster will no longer be valid. We will try and update it as quickly as possible once the secondary legislation, and the all-important codes of practice/CPS prosecution guides, have been published.