The demonstrations protesting alleged foot-dragging in the investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Petah Tikva’s Goren Square have been going on for nearly a year and have spread to other parts of the country. They have already scored an achievement for the public good: The High Court of Justice’s ruling Sunday that firmly establishes the public’s right to protest.
The ruling is an unequivocal response to everyone who slandered the demonstrators and their supporters and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the protests against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Those people included ministers and Knesset members who are tagging along behind Netanyahu and even top law enforcement officials. The High Court made it clear that their criticism was baseless.
After a few unfortunate comments by the court that were interpreted by the public and decision-makers as an effort to withdraw support for the protest, the justices on Sunday, headed by incoming High Court President Esther Hayut, clarified two important issues. One is that the attorney general is a public servant and thus a legitimate target for a public protest like any other public servant. The other is that the police and prosecutors in recent months have repeatedly violated the rights of the demonstrators in Petah Tikva.
Given the importance of the basic right to freedom of expression, the High Court established that the police’s authority to require demonstrators to obtain a permit to demonstrate when the protest includes political speeches must be interpreted in a restrained fashion.
In other words, not every issue is political, and a protest against government corruption and for integrity certainly isn’t included in this category. The ruling showed that the police’s policy of essentially requiring a permit for any demonstration over 50 people is illegal. Mendelblit and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich must update the rules on demonstrations.
Back in 1979, the High Court already determined that “the police are not in charge of ideology.” The police’s authority to consider whether to permit or block a demonstration based on the content of the demonstration is problematic in a democratic society. It’s no coincidence that no police force in the Western world has similar powers.
The Knesset and government thus should adopt the justices’ recommendation to amend the police ordinances so that the question of whether to permit the holding of demonstrations – even mass, controversial and stormy ones – or impose restrictions on them will not be related to the demonstrators’ message. Rather, the basis will solely be logistical considerations connected to the maintaining of public order.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel
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