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Police told to protect free expression when people protest against controversial art

Police in England and Wales have been told to protect freedom of expression in the first advice given to forces over how to handle protests against controversial art.

An advice pack, assembled by Index on Censorship and Arts Council England, tells the authorities how to prepare for demonstrations against potentially provocative works.

It follows protests against performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Barbican Centre, which resulted in the cancellation of shows.Simon Mellor, Arts Council executive director, and policy and officer Nicole McNeilly said they had been “particularly concerned” about  variations in “how different police forces around the country have interpreted the potential threat to public order.”

Simon Mellor, Arts Council executive director, and policy and officer Nicole McNeilly said they had been “particularly concerned” about  variations in “how different police forces around the country have interpreted the potential threat to public order.”

Give the police tools

They said that police forces “will often tend towards caution to minimise the potential risk of disorder”, as they had no general guidance on how to best police provocative art.The pair wrote on the

The pair wrote on the Arts Council’s website: “We wanted to give the police service tools to help them make more informed decisions with regard to controversial works of art. We were determined, wherever possible, to see freedom of expression supported.“With this law pack now in circulation among police forces, it should be easier for arts or cultural organisations planning to present potentially controversial work to enter a dialogue with their local force.

“With this law pack now in circulation among police forces, it should be easier for arts or cultural organisations planning to present potentially controversial work to enter a dialogue with their local force.“

“Hopefully this will mean organisations being able to plan with more confidence – and a few less sleepless nights for trustees and staff.”

The police may be overly conservative

The guidance on works which raise issues of counter-terrorism states: “In some cases the advice or presence of the police may put pressure on the museum or gallery or theatre to remove an artwork voluntarily.“However, an arts organisation is not obliged to remove an art work because the police have merely advised it to do so (rather than seizing the work). The police may be taking an overly conservative approach and their interpretation of the law may be wrong. The arts organisation

“However, an arts organisation is not obliged to remove an art work because the police have merely advised it to do so (rather than seizing the work). The police may be taking an overly conservative approach and their interpretation of the law may be wrong. The arts organisation should therefore seek independent legal advice before permanently removing artworks, and inform the police that they are doing so.”

The Crown Prosecution Service and the National Police Chiefs Council have recommended the new guidelines, which gives forces advice on the need to balance the avoidance of censorship with measures to ensure public safety, The Stage reported.

The Arts Council has issued guidance to theatre and arts organisations on how to meet “ethical challenges” when staging potentially controversial events.