Vail Daily column: Is there, in fact, a "Riot Act"? | VailDaily.com
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Vail Daily column: Is there, in fact, a "Riot Act"?

In consideration of the Occupy Movement and the fact that it has recently stimulated if not exactly “riots,” then at the least a myriad of spirited civil disturbances, the question arises whether there is, in fact, a Riot Act.

Holding that at arm’s length for a moment, let’s ponder the term in the modern lexicon. Surely you’ve heard it, “So and so is reading (fill in the blank here) the Riot Act!” (the exclamation point is, apparently in all such utterances, obligatory). Or perhaps you’ve had the Riot Act read to you? Well, unless you lived a prior street urchin’s life in the Jolly Olde Mother Ship of the early 18th century, chances likely are, well, not so much.

The popular expression is, in fact, little but a gaudy panchromatic metaphor, the vestige of another, more authoritarian monarchial time.



But its origins are real.

Before we get there though, what does the term mean in modern usage? The best approximation is when someone is fired up and, in his or her fired up or agitated state, “delivers to another a stern rebuke.” Not exactly the mellifluous stuff of Dickensian wordsmithing is it? Issuing one a stern rebuke lacks the pithiness and punch of reading him the Riot Act!



So borrowing an olde tyme phrase, from whence then, does Riot Act arise?

A little history here …

In 18th-century England, the laws were enforced, in the main, by local magistrates. If and when the aforementioned street urchins now and then grew restive and became unruly, it was the responsibility of the magistrates to gain control and to restore peace and harmony to their little slice of the Kingdom. If the local Poohbahs didn’t like the cut of jib of any group that numbered 12 or more, the motley assemblage could be deemed a “riotous and tumultuous assembly.” If, when warned to disperse, they did not, they could be arrested and the thunder of the monarchy imposed upon them. The warning to disperse was, literally, in reading them the Riot Act!



The Riot Act – more formally, “An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters” – was passed by the British government in 1714 and came into effect in 1715. It contained the warning that:

“”Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.”

If the putative mob did not comply and peaceably disperse within the hour, the wrath and thunder of the sovereign, by and through his magistrates (what we know modernly as shock and awe), swiftly and decisively ensued.

The mob was forcibly dispersed. People were arrested. Punishments for ignoring the act were severe. One could be jailed and impressed into hard labor for several years. A little harsher that a spritz of pepper spray, you may be thinking?

But times were tough. In the era in which the act became law, the government, rightfully, was fearful of Jacobite mobs who threatened to rise up and overthrow the Hanoverian king, George I. The fear was, in fact, well-founded, as was borne out by supporters of the deposed Stuarts who tried to overthrow the extant kingdom in 1715 and again in 1745.

Once the Hanoverians were well established, the Riot Act faded slowly into blissful desuetude. It became, like much of Jolly Olde, the stuff of legend. Like King Arthur, Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table. While it remained officially “on the books” and did – like the occasional breaching of the Monster of Loch Ness – surface now and then (it was read to a group of demonstrating mill workers at Manchester Town Hall in 1842), it had had its day and was deployed with ever-decreasing frequency. By the dawn of the 20th century, its use had become a distinct and fragile rarity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the Mother Country being nothing if not bound by arthritic customs and traditions, the act remained on the U.K. statute books well into modern times. Finally, after a run of a third of a millennium, the act was formally repealed 1973.

But England being England, where order is a high and noble virtue, it was eventually superseded by the Public Order Act of 1986. Stiff upper lip and all, you know.

Where the act entered the public lexicon is hard to say, though it appears that the first record of the colloquial use of the phrase is found in a work published in 1819: “She has just run out to read the riot act in the Nursery.”

So, no. No Riot Act, at least in terms of it being a law that might be enforced against Occupy or others. But if you don’t believe it’s real, share that with someone who believes otherwise. You just might find, that in response, they tell you precisely what is what. And you may find yourself unwelcomely on the receiving end of their own homespun version of the Riot Act!

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners’ associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, robbins@colorado.net.


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