Olympic rights and wrongs

Freedom of expression appears to be on the losing team as the first Olympic Asbo comes into force

One may question whether “the practice of sport is a human right”, as stated in the Olympic Charter. But it cannot be doubted that it is not as ­important as the right of freedom of expression, which is regarded as ­fundamental to democracy.

Yet this right seems often to be trammeled in the name of the Olympics. At the Beijing Games demonstrations were prohibited save with a permit in three ’demonstration areas’. In fact, would-be demonstrators were deterred from applying and those who did were not granted permits anyway.

In the run-up to the London Games questions must be asked about whether freedom of expression is being respected here. The London Olympic and Paralympic Games Act 2006 prohibits businesses from any promotion linked to the Games. It would catch, for example, a bed and breakfast offering a discount on rooms to anyone attending the Games, or a pub that gets in a big screen to show the Games and publicises the fact on a sign outside. Newspapers have also reported that the quango responsible for enforcement of the act, Locog, will also be cracking down on Facebook and YouTube postings during the Games.

Such prohibitions appear to go ­beyond the justification Locog itself advances for them: protecting the ­official sponsors, who fund the Games, from unofficial competition.

The invasion of freedom of expression also ratcheted up last week with the service of the first Olympic Asbo. This followed the efforts of three ­protesters to prevent the erection of a temporary basketball court by the Olympic Development Authority on Leyton Marsh in Hackney. The protesters claimed that workmen were unlawfully digging through topsoil into the protected marsh.

According to press reports, the Asbo, served on one of the three protesters Simon Moore, makes it a criminal offence for Moore to enter within 100 yards of any Olympic competition or practice venue or within 100 yards of any road being used for Olympic activities. The Asbo also prevents Moore from trespassing on any building or land, taking part in “any activity that disrupts the intended” activities at the Olympics or, for good measure, at any Diamond Jubilee celebrations, or that “obstructs” the passage of any Olympic participant – including officials and spectators – at any time.

The use of Asbos to prevent individuals engaging in offensive and valueless anti-social conduct is one thing. But their use to impose prior restraints on the genuine exercise of freedom of expression, as well as the exercise of other rights such as ordinary use of the highway or attending an event for which one has tickets, is much more questionable and goes beyond current authority, Singh v Chief Constable of West Midlands (2006) EWCA Civ 1118.

Even accepting that the detailed facts have not been reported, it is difficult to conceive how a protest against the digging up of protected marshland could justify prior restraints on association and expression in other contexts.

That this has been done in the name of the Olympic Games – and ­indirectly at least the ’human right’ to engage in sport – is a regrettable further manifestation of the tension between the Olympics and one of the most venerated democratic rights.