Lush, SpyCops and Police Interaction with Freedom of Speech
This entry is adapted from a letter I just sent to my MP. I have very little hope in actually seeing a response or action from her, so I include it here.
Lush is currently running a campaign online at in its stores to raise awareness of the situation where police working undercover infiltrated various campaign groups including forming fake relationships with actual campaigners. Although there has been some acceptance of this and some compensatory payout, there is an ongoing inquiry which Lush is highlighting as the victims feel little confidence in the inquiry’s approach (https://uk.lush.com/article/exposing-spy-who-loved-me).
Regardless of how much you agree with with the rights and wrongs of the Lush campaign or its tone, I hope you can agree that they should be free to run it – indeed any campaign which does not include hatred or incitement to violence should be free to run.
Equally, the police should be free to run criticism of the campaign through normal channels.
Unfortunately, I think the police have crossed a line in, what I hope is, an isolated incident. This was brought to my attention with a tweet apparently from the Chair of the Cambridgeshire Police Federation:
"One of our officers went and had a polite and constructive discussion with the manager of @LushLtd Peterborough who then removed the display. Seems some of their staff are sensible and care about our feelings after all #Lushpolice #FlushLush”
This is accompanied by photos of the Lush store with the campaign up and were they are taking it down. These seem to be stills from, or taken around the same time as, a video from (allegedy) the Officer in question:
“As a result of me visiting Lush, Peterborough, their terribly misleading marketing campaign was removed from their window. #FlushLush”
The alleged officer account has responded to questions confirming it was an “off-duty visit” and that he was not in uniform which is certainly a more positive sign than I had feared, but concerns remain about a police officer “encouraging” people to take down such political campaigns even off-duty. Police Officers are imbued with great powers and there is an inherent power imbalance between an officer (even off-duty) and any member of the public.
This power dynamic is officially recognised in a few police guidance documents:
“1.33 When police officers produce their warrant card (other than for identification purposes only) or act in a way to suggest that they are acting in their capacity as a police officer (e.g. declaring that they are a police officer) they are demonstrating that they are exercising their authority and have therefore put themselves on duty and will act in a way which conforms to these standards. For example, during a dispute with a neighbour a police officer who decides to produce a warrant card would be considered to be on duty”
(Home Office Guidance – Police Officer Misconduct, Unsatisfactory Performance and Attendance Management Procedures - https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa...)
“1.25 Like all professionals, police officers have special knowledge and experience that many others do not possess (for example what may or may not constitute an offence). Police officers do not take unfair advantage of the inequality that arises from a member of the public being ill-equipped to make an informed judgement about a matter in respect of which he or she does not have the special knowledge of the police officer.”
(Guidance to Student Constables Concerning the Standards - http://www.met.police.uk/msctraining/documents/police_officer_profession...)
I am also concerned that the officer appears to have stood outside filming the removal of the campaign. This seems to me to be incredibly threatening behaviour, especially given the power dynamic at play.
I believe this incident is a potentially serious example of a threat to freedom of speech. It involves a police officer entering a store and influencing the removal of campaign materials which are critical of the police. Police Officers are arms of the state imbued with powers, and presumed knowledge, beyond those of non-Police Officers. Even if polite and keen to stress being "off-duty", as soon as you are identified as a police officer there is an absolute power imbalance. This is not people protesting transphobes or criticising their ideas. This is not people writing to an organisation asking them not to host a group which has loudly preached hatred towards you. This is an arm of the state telling you that they think there is a problem with your campaign. That is censorship. That is a threat to free speech. And it needs to be challenged and it needs to be prevented.
These comments also feed into a more general issue with how the police use social media – often coming across as smug, satisfied and superior in their interactions rather than professional. They also serve to highlight the power dynamic in unhealthy ways. All of this leads only to further distrust of them.
I have asked, in the lack of much else to be able to ask for, for my MP to raise the question about how these things should be balanced, but I genuinely have no idea. This has clearly crossed a line if he has identified himself as a police officer, but I hate that they should be silenced by formal guidance.