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Editorial: Ruling against police removal of hecklers at Japan PM's talk backs free speech

The Sapporo District Court has ordered Hokkaido Prefectural Police to pay compensation to two citizens who were forcibly removed by police officers after they heckled then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a House of Councillors election campaign speech in 2019.

    In the lawsuit filed by the citizens who were among the audience at Abe's speech, the court recognized that their removal was regulation of speech by police and pointed a finger at the illegality of their actions. The police deserve the ruling for their behavior.

    During Abe's speech in Sapporo, the two plaintiffs heckled the prime minister with calls such as "Step down, Abe!" and "No tax hike!" Immediately afterward, police officers restrained them by grabbing their arms and shoulders, and removed them from the scene. One of the plaintiffs was even followed by police for at least nearly one hour after the removal.

    The ruling stated that the jeers "somewhat lacked decency" but acknowledged that they were "acts of expression concerning public and political matters." The verdict then determined the police officers' actions as infringing upon "freedom of expression" guaranteed under the Constitution of Japan.

    During the trial, the prefectural police force asserted that the two plaintiffs were at risk of being harmed by other members of the audience, or committing dangerous acts against others.

    However, footage from the scene at the time does not show any movements indicating such danger. Testimonies in court by police officers involved in the forced removal of the hecklers also lacked corroborating evidence.

    Under the Public Office Election Act, it is prohibited to interrupt someone's speech to the point it is inaudible to other members of the general audience. In the Sapporo case, however, the plaintiffs did not use loudspeakers but only uttered short phrases. Therefore, their actions do not fall under the legal ban.

    As large crowds of people gather at speeches by high-profile figures, it is necessary to provide police security. Yet police forces must make sure to adopt a measured response to avoid their actions leading to regulation of speech. The Sapporo District Court decision precisely is a rebuke of Hokkaido police's control of free speech.

    In regard to the reason behind the prefectural police's restraint of the two plaintiffs' actions, the ruling recognized that the police judged that their jeers were not appropriate considering they took place where Abe was giving his speech.

    During a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election campaign speech in 2017 in the capital's Akihabara district, then Prime Minister Abe sharply reacted to voters chanting, "Quit, Abe!" by saying, "We cannot lose to people like this," while pointing to the hecklers.

    It was from around that time that it became a common sight for Abe's supporters to crowd around him during his street speeches, while people voicing criticism against him were kept at a distance.

    Freedom of expression, under which various claims and opinions are respected, is a fundamental principle for democratic politics. We must not allow our society to be transformed into one where opposing opinions are suppressed and people are intimidated to the point of finding it hard to even raise their voices.

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