Waltham Council wins case against anti-abortion campaigner

Waltham Forest Council has won its court case against an anti-abortion campaigner it banned from displaying large photos of foetuses.

A judge ruled on Wednesday that the display organised by Christian Hacking was the “visual equivalent of shouting both loudly and directly into a person’s face” and the council was right to ban it.

Mr Hacking, 29, was given a community protection notice (CPN) forbidding him from displaying large images of foetuses after organising a demonstration on October 3 last year.

Anti-abortion group Centre for Bioethical Reform UK (CBR UK), of which Mr Hacking is an employee, put up a large photo of an aborted 24-week-old foetus in Walthamstow Town Square, causing distress to members of the public.

Though Mr Hacking and fellow campaigners argued the ban infringed their human rights, District Judge Jonathan M Radway agreed with the council that the display was “unreasonable”.

In his ruling, he wrote that “after anxious consideration”, he had decided the display was “beyond the margin of what freedom of expression requires, even for political speech”.

He added: “The sight of the image caused more than just distress to some observers: in simple terms it caused emotional harm to some of those who viewed it.

“It was unavoidable for anyone present in the town square without leaving this location.

“Notwithstanding the police presence there was a real likelihood of public disorder breaking out given the mood of the crowd.”

During the case at Stratford Magistrates’ Court in February, witness Mandy Baker told the court the display made her feel “physically sick, anxious and horrified”.

She added: “It is not something I wanted my daughter to see and she was clearly anxious as well. Those are the types of images that would stop me visiting my own town square.”

Another witness, Lesley Finlayson, said: “I totally agree with that campaign but it’s not about that, that image was wrong.

“It was used to cause anger and cause upset in my community. It seems over the top, the size of them, they were the size of a person, it was vile.”

Regarding these and more testimonies from residents, Judge Radway said: “These are not hollow, empty descriptions given by over-sensitive people; they are the very real consequences for these local witnesses.”

He added that he did not agree that the CPN was an attempt on the council’s part to shut down the campaign, pointing out that “at most it was blunted a little”, since they could still campaign in many other ways.

The Centre for Bioethical Reform UK (CBR UK), which organised a number of demonstrations against local MP Stella Creasy after her amendment extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland.

On October 3, the court heard Mr Hacking was given a warning to remove the banners within 15 minutes after the crowd became agitated.

Anti-social behaviour service delivery manager Philip Connor, who issued the CPN, told the court he was worried the situation “would have continued to escalate” otherwise.

He said: “I made the decision I felt was best for the safety of everyone there. That was as feisty a space as I have seen professionally, people were evidently upset.

“I have a duty to protect people’s physical and mental health. It was not a case of who shouts loudest. We have a statutory duty to tackle behaviour likely to cause alarm or distress.

“There were numerous further demonstrations after the event and on many of those occasions we took no action because we respect their freedom of speech.”

Responding to the outcome, Mr Hacking said he was “deeply disappointed” his case was not successful and he intends to further appeal this decision.

He added that, in his view, it was the foetus and not MP Stella Creasy or those negatively impacted by the display which is “the real victim of abortion”.

He said: “How can we see positive change in the UK if politicians and councils are allowed to dictate how we express peaceable opinions in public?

“For the sake of the unborn and for freedom of speech we must take this appeal further and hold those authorities to account.”

His case was supported by Christian Legal Centre, the legal arm of evangelical group Christian Concern.

The offending poster. The YA has obscured the image of the foetus for obvious reasons

Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter