‘Innocence Charged with Guilt’: The Criminalisation of Protest from Peterloo to Millbank

  • Nadine El-Enany


The British state has a long history of attempting to control what can be said and done by way of political protest. Until the late 1700s and early 1800s, its method of limiting free speech, in particular that against the state or Church, entailed prosecutions under libel law, in particular the law of seditious libel. By the late eighteenth century it was becoming increasingly unacceptable to limit what could be said in the form of political dissent, and yet the state needed to find a way of retaining its hold on power in the face of political opposition, particularly the sort which manifested itself in the congregation of large crowds of people at rallies or on marches, which caused great apprehension to the local authorities (Lobban, 1990). Prosecutions for expressions of political opinion were becoming increasingly difficult by the early nineteenth century, which was nevertheless a time of political upheaval. The content of what people published and what they said at public meetings and rallies frequently fell outside the scope of libel laws and thus the state had to find another way to deal with dissent, which it believed remained a threat to the authorities and the apportionment of power in society. It was the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819, and in particular the trials which followed, which paved the way for the use of public order offences against protesters.


Public Order Protest Activity Political Upheaval Police Violence Student Protest 
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© Nadine El-Enany 2014

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  • Nadine El-Enany

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