The Need for Public Protest

by | 16 Oct 2012

We are delighted to republish this brief piece from Shadow of the Noose, the increasing criminalisation of protest in UK is troubling. This piece concerns the trial and sentencing of Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race – it is difficult to find a clearer image of privilege in sport in Great Britain today.

Earlier last week, Trenton Oldfield was convicted of ‘Causing a Public Nuisance’ by a jury at the Isleworth Crown Court. Previous instances of this rarely prosecuted offence include impregnating the air with “noisome and offensive stinks and smells” causing “a nuisance to all the King’s liege subjects living in Twickenham” But Oldfield was the man who had the temerity to disrupt the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race last April, by choosing to take a swim, just as both boats were getting into their stride.

The prosecutor explained to the court that his actions had “spoiled the race for hundreds of thousands of spectators” and for this, the judge has adjourned sentence, commenting that she is not ruling out a prison sentence.

Of course, Mr Oldfield is not the first person to attempt to make a point by spoiling the fun of sports enthusiasts. Famously protestors dug up the crease at the 1975 Third Test between England and Australia in an attempt to bring to the publics attention that an innocent man had been sent to prison for robbery the year before. Only last year, that man, George Davis was exonerated by the Court of Appeal and his conviction held to be unsafe. One of the men who vandalised the cricket field, Peter Chappell, was sent to gaol for his part in trying to raise public awareness in what has since been recognised as a gross miscarriage of justice. No doubt the Third Test, back in that rainy Summer of 1975 was “spoiled for hundreds of thousands of spectators”, but, nearly 40 years later, their sporting pleasure was nothing compared to the gaoling of an innocent man.

Similarly the thrill of horseracing was spoiled for many spectators when a suffragette threw herself under the King’s Horse and was trampled to death, but surely the spoiling of their fun was nothing compared to the denegration of women in that pre-vote era. Her tragic death, as she ran into the path of the galloping horse was borne of anger and frustration in an age since recognised as discriminatory and unfair.

Interestingly, one of the reasons why Oldfield swam out amongst the boats was that he objected to the government and Olympic organisers call for us to report anyone we suspected of planning a public protest during the Olympic period. For this he was charged with ‘Causing a Public Nuisance’. The ingredients of the offence are that he behaved in such a way that an injury was suffered by the public and potentially carries a life sentence. Of course, Mr Oldfield will not get life, but this rarely prosecuted offence may yet see him serving time.

In fact what Trenton Oldfield did during the last Boat Race was in the finest historic traditions of getting public attention at a big sporting event, for a cause which struggled to attract National interest, sympathy or appreciation. He has been treated in the same way as others before him, ridiculed and criminalised. The usual suggestions that a sporting venue is, in any event, no place for such behaviour has also, predictably reared its head and, again predictably, venerated sports people have castigated the behaviour of the protestor.

We live in a Society which only tolerates public protest so long as it is clean, relatively quiet and does not inconvenience anyone. The moment it threatens or spoils our fun it becomes a police matter.

Ultimately, history treats the protestor far more equitably than the present.


  1. I agree with the right to public protest as long as one is prepared to accept the penalty of the law.

    That’s why I have been protesting against the Hunting Act which is quite clearly in my case an absurd law by publicly breaking it on a regular basis on my farm in Devon.

    I don’t particularly want to get prosecuted however I do think that when people openly flout the law to protest against its absurdity then the authorities should either have to change it or enforce it.

    It does no body any good when we have laws that are so evidently flawed that people can break them with complete impunity.

  2. sorry should have put my name above

    it’s Giles Bradshaw


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,403 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


Fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4000 subscribers.