A guest post by Jonathan D.C. Turner, Chair of UK Lawyers for Israel
As many readers will know, performances and lectures by Israelis in the UK have frequently been disrupted in recent years. In one serious example, a concert by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall was interrupted by shouting and singing to such an extent that a simultaneous broadcast on BBC Radio 3 was taken off-air.
Videos show the threatening atmosphere and the risk of a serious breakdown of order which could have resulted in mass casualties and this was also confirmed by eye-witness accounts.
A BBC report quoted Theartsdesk.com music reviewer:
“The whole hall was groaning and trying to slow clap them out. It had the atmosphere of a riot”.
Another eye-witness wrote:
“This created a most tense and hostile atmosphere throughout the several disruptions. Each time the chanting and shouting broke out, my eleven-year-old grandson became very upset, and kept saying he wanted to go home. The reaction of the vast majority of music-lovers, who wanted to hear the music in peace, created an understandable sense of frustration and anger throughout the Hall and posed a significant threat to public order. From where I was sitting in the circle, it occurred to me how easily an enraged member of the audience could have pushed one or more of those protesting in the front row over the balcony.”
Another “witnessed elderly gentlemen who wished nothing else, but to enjoy an evening of music by one of the most prominent orchestras led by its distinguished maestro, having to argue with Neanderthals to such extent that one of them felt the need to physically try to remove them from the seats resulting in slaps on the heads.” Another “felt extremely intimidated by the whole experience”.
Performances by the Jerusalem Quartet, Batsheva and Habima have also been disrupted, as have lectures by the Israeli Ambassador, HE Daniel Taub; the former Deputy Ambassador, Talya Lador-Fresher; and law lecturer Solon Solomon.
The problem is not confined to Israelis. Other victims have included Mohamed El-Nabawy, whose lecture on the challenges faced by Egypt to a meeting of the SOAS Palestinian Society was stormed by Muslim Brotherhood thugs; David Willetts MP, talking to students at Cambridge; and Professor Alex Callinicos, whose lecture at Warwick University was abandoned due to disruption by an unusual combination of neo-Nazis and feminists.
Those who wish to criticise Israel or anyone else have an important right of freedom of expression. However, when they disrupt performances and lectures by others, they are interfering with the freedom of expression of those performers and speakers, and the rights of those who wish to hear them. Preventing such disruption is not abridging freedom of expression; it is protecting it.
But can anything be done about it?
Disrupting a performance or lecture in the UK is normally a criminal offence, called “aggravated trespass”. This offence is committed when a trespasser carries out acts intended to disrupt a lawful activity. Even if the disrupters had tickets to the performance or lecture, they are trespassers because they are admitted to hear and watch, not to disrupt.
However, prosecutions are rare. The Police have other things to do and limited budgets. They also take the view that they should not prosecute unless requested by the “victim”, and seem to think that the victim is the owner of the premises, not the audience, performers or speaker. In practice, owners are usually not too concerned: they simply avoid similar bookings in future, which achieves the objective of the disrupters.
Private prosecutions are difficult and onerous. The elements of the offence have to be proved to the criminal standard and in accordance with criminal procedures, resulting in disproportionate expense.
Civil remedies are also problematic. Owners of venues could sue for trespass but in practice they are not sufficiently interested.
Members of the audience, performers and speakers do not appear to have any right of action in civil proceedings against the disrupters. They cannot claim for causing loss by unlawful means, because the House of Lords has held that the unlawful means must interfere with the freedom of a third-party to deal with them. Nor can they claim for conspiracy to cause loss by unlawful means, even if there was (and they can prove) a conspiracy, since the authorities appear to say that the loss must be financial, rather than loss of enjoyment or damage to feelings. Nor can they argue that the disrupters have procured a breach of their contracts, because their contracts have not been broken.
In these circumstances, the disrupters rightly reckon that they will not be called to account, and so they continue.
However, there is a simple answer which UK Lawyers for Israel is urging the UK Parliament to adopt: a three-line amendment to give those affected by an aggravated trespass a civil right of action for damages and an injunction. If this is passed, it will be possible for members of the audience, performers and speakers to bring straightforward claims against disrupters in the small claims court.
To be sure, some of the disrupters live on benefits and think they have nothing to lose. But others do have jobs and money, and will think twice if they have to pay several hundred pounds compensation in total to a number of those affected.
Government ministers have said that this amendment will not add to the existing remedies. They are wrong, for the reasons summarised above. And even if they are right, the amendment will do no harm; it will merely add three lines to the many extant volumes of UK legislation confirming the rights of those affected to bring civil claims against those who disrupt performances and lectures.
Readers who wish to support this amendment should contact their MPs.
- Israel’s Batsheva dances on in Edinburgh despite PSC invasions (Richard Millett)